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Upriver and Down, Salmon Are Common Ground

Description of the Copper River watershed and challenges faced.

Begun as a series of workshops on sustainable development in 1996, the Copper River Watershed Project was founded on the premise that, as residents of this region, we have more in common with each other than we have differences among ourselves.

Watershed:  all the land that carries rain to the same river system; the region or area drained by a river or stream.

Yes, our 26,500 square mile drainage hosts a range of ecosystems from a dry, interior basin to a coastal rainforest.  Yes, the commercial fishing economy of Cordova has different concerns and infrastructure needs from the upriver communities that rely on state and federal agency and school district employment, subsistence, and, increasingly, tourism.

One river, though, connects and sustains residents of the region from Mentasta Lake near the Copper River’s headwaters to Cordova, near the river’s mouth.  The salmon migrating up this corridor to spawn are our true currency, supporting a subsistence salmon economy, a growing sportfish salmon economy, and a commercial salmon economy.  Maintaining the spawning habitat that supports these salmon -- a renewable, public resource -- is a critical endeavor for the region's economy and perpetuating biological diversity.

The challenges that face this river are common to all too.  Tourism is growing rapidly in Alaska, and rural communities are struggling to find ways to ensure that tourism benefits their residents without exploiting them.  Solid waste disposal is a growing concern.  The Trans-Alaska Pipeline crosses 76 fish streams in the watershed and five major tributaries to the Copper River -- a breach at any one of these river crossings could be devastating for our fisheries.  Different management directives among the three federal and three state agencies, and large private landowners, mean that resource management is uncoordinated with regard to habitat conditions. 

We believe that awareness is growing, though, about the value of this mighty watershed:  “the Copper River is not simply one river -- it dozens of rivers, hundreds of streams, and countless mountain drainages, all tied together to form one coursing channel to the ocean,” wrote Mark Henspeter after a Wrangell Institute for Science and the Environment float trip for high school students in 2007.

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