Written by Evan Jones

Never allow individuals to make no difference.
All photos courtesy of Brian Kraft, Alaska Sportman’s Lodge

Brian Kraft first came to Alaska in 1988 as a wide-eyed 21-year-old from Chicago and was recruited by the University of Alaska to play Division 1 ice hockey. “I wasn’t even a fisherman when I arrived,” he told me, “but it was wide open enough to call me. About three weeks later I told my mom I didn’t think I would ever come home.”

For the next three decades, Brian actually stayed (mostly) in Alaska and eventually built up a flourishing fisherman’s hut from scratch on the banks of the Kvichak River. And when his livelihood was threatened by the now-infamous Pebble Mine project just upriver, Brian responded by helping start one of the most successful grassroots conservation movements in Alaskan history. While the details of this tireless effort could easily fill a novel, the highlights below make an inspirational story in their own right and could also serve as a useful blueprint for other communities looking to protect their communities and way of life from a catastrophic incompatible project.

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Brian spent countless hours promoting the mining project at angling fairs across the country.

During the summers of those early days, Brian supplemented his offseason income with a raft rental business, which he started after learning, to his surprise, that Anchorage didn’t yet have one. Word spread quickly around town and within the first few weeks he had already doubled the number of rafts due to the constant sell-out. Over the following summers, Brian hired some of his fellow hockey players as guides and began to significantly expand his client base both domestically and internationally. As his hockey career slowed, Brian focused full-time on his rafting business and eventually became known for his paddle rather than puck skills.

So when the opportunity arose to lease a 160 hectare property on the world famous Kvichak River – a location he knew would appeal to clients as it was considered a trophy rainbow fishery and home to some of the largest salmon runs in the world – Brian jumped up to make his dream come true. Ultimately, his success came from the reputation he had built with so many local boating and fishing enthusiasts (not to mention his hockey teammates and fans), some of whom were significant influencers on those matters. This base support recipe for success would serve Brian well in his upcoming battles.

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Brian (centre) didn’t let snow, long distances or a lack of roads stop him from connecting with the people of Bristol Bay.

When he first heard rumors about the Pebble Mine plan in 2004, Brian was excited by the prospect of more jobs and more opportunities for local people. However, that initial enthusiasm soon waned when one of his lodge guests, a Nevada mining expert, asked to fly over the proposed site to take a look. “No, no, too much water…that’s way too much water,” he kept saying, going on to explain that one of the biggest challenges facing open pit mines is controlling groundwater, which is a seemingly insurmountable task in this swampy area traversed by interconnected lakes. This prompted Brian to delve deeper into local water containment plans, and soon his growing concerns led him to attend a meeting of a well-known advocacy group in Anchorage in hopes of getting them involved. And when they politely refused to take up the fight due to lack of resources, Brian made another important decision that would go a long way towards the campaign’s eventual success: he decided to start his own non-profit organization called the Bristol Bay Alliance.

The Bristol Bay Alliance’s mission statement was: The people who live and work in Bristol Bay should have the loudest voice about what is happening to their country. This had to be a bottom-up decision. If the people of Bristol Bay had supported the implementation of this project, it would have happened. I thought it was very important that they be heard, but I was confident that once people became aware of the habitat destruction caused by this type of mining, people would protest. —Brian Kraft

Although he had no formal training in the nonprofit field, Brian tried to educate as many people as possible about open pit mining. He staffed the board of the Bristol Bay Alliance with members from local communities and enlisted the help of a local scientist named Scott Brennan who had valuable expertise on these matters. Their vision was simple – that the people of Bristol Bay should have the loudest voice in deciding what happens to their country – but achieving that goal was far from easy. Brian and Scott set out to personally visit each village in the region to hold a public seminar and impartial discussion on open pit mining so that local voices were better informed. Reaching some of these remote locations in winter required a combination of small charter planes, snow machines and even dog sleds, but they persevered throughout the 2005-06 season, eventually reaching most communities in the region. Attendance has been close to 100% at each event, but no one had ever seen a real open pit mine. So the Bristol Bay Alliance decided to conduct several site visits at active mines in Nevada, Montana and Utah, inviting people from each village to come and see the work for themselves. Unsurprisingly, support for Pebble Mine in these communities plummeted when they had the opportunity to see a massive industrial mine up close.

In the late summer of 2006, the work of Brian and the Bristol Bay Alliance began to garner vital support from new players who would take the campaign even further. First, Trout Unlimited set up an office in Alaska and immediately jumped in after TU President Chris Wood visited the site with Brian. This was an uncharacteristic move by a cross-party group of conservation-conscious anglers who do not normally take a ‘blatant no’ position on issues. Brian worked closely with TU to start their anti-pebble mine campaign. “Brian was an incredible, unwavering advocate in this fight,” said Nelli Williams, TU’s Alaska director. “His early leadership, constant vigilance and total commitment to protecting fisheries helped turn the Pebble Mine – a massive threat to Bristol Bay that was initially unknown – into a movement that millions of people took action against have.”

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Little did Brian realize that his campaign would eventually land him guest spots on popular TV shows, which would spread his message even further.

Brian’s early work also caught the attention of Bob Gilliam, the Alaskan-born executive of a large investment company and owner of a private lodge in the area. Wanting to help too, Bob started his own organization with the goal of spreading the message to fellow Alaskans. So, along with Brian, Scott, and a few other outdoor enthusiasts, he formed the Renewable Resource Coalition and spent millions of dollars airing commercials, some downright inflammatory, to raise public awareness and force lawmakers to take a stand to relate this controversial topic. “We threw a lot of darts at the disc,” he told me, recalling those days. “We had many ideas, but never knew what would remain.”

Arguably the most significant development in the movement’s success came two years later, in 2008, when, at the urging of its shareholders, the Bristol Bay Native Corporation was formed – a for-profit organization that owns the rights to much of the land used for access to the mine site is required – has officially joined the fight against the project. This was a really pivotal moment in the campaign. Thanks in part to Brian’s passionate determination and desire to make this a locally owned initiative, the people of Alaska had learned a thing or two about open pit mining over the past few years, and the tide of public opinion had overwhelmingly and irrevocably opposed.

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Brian’s work eventually took him all the way to DC to testify before Congress.

The story doesn’t end there, of course, but by this point the crucial foundations had largely been laid and the road to success clearly outlined. “The efforts of virtually every company in the industry drew national attention to the issue, which eventually led to the issue reaching our highest levels of government,” Brian explains. “The Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations were all involved in Pebble, and each of them helped stop it. And considering we started from the basics of a grassroots initiative, I didn’t even know what an NGO or 501-C3 was was until I started my own.”

Before joining Orvis, I worked for a decade for an NGO that campaigned for environmental justice, where I saw hundreds of similar campaigns come and go, and the handful that were actually successful all had the same elements in common. The Pebble Mine might be being built in Bristol Bay now were it not for the remarkable initial work of Brian, the other Alaskan leaders who quickly joined in, and the thousands of local people who lobbied loudly and resolutely to close their home rivers for the past protect two decades. Next time you’re tempted to believe that one person can’t make a difference, remember that Bristol Bay would probably be a very different place today were it not for many dedicated people acting together.

“It’s thanks to community leaders like Brian that Bristol Bay will remain fish-rich and wild…a place that future generations can count on to connect with their culture and support their families.”Nelli Williams, Trout Unlimited

Brian Kraft is the owner and operator of Alaska Sportsman’s Lodge and Bristol Bay Fishing Lodge in the southwest of AK.

Evan Jones is Associate Editor of the Orvis Fly Fishing blog.