DILLINGHAM, ALASKA – President Barack Obama headed to remote fly-in native villages of Alaska on Wednesday on a trek the White House hopes will bring attention to how climate change is affecting Americans.
Obama will become the first sitting U.S. president to visit a community north of the Arctic Circle when he flies into Kotzebue, an Arctic town of about 3,000 that is battling coastal erosion caused by rising seas.
Before going to Kotzebue, Obama went to Dillingham, home to one of the world’s largest sockeye salmon fisheries, where residents are fighting the Pebble Mine copper and gold project that has been proposed by Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd .
Ignoring a light drizzle, he walked down the banks of the Nushagak River where women who fish for a living had anchored fishing nets to shore to catch a silver salmon.
“I’ve got to get some gloves so I can handle my fish,” Obama said. As he lifted it, the fish relieved itself on his shoes. “Uh-oh. What happened there?” he asked.
Obama spoke with Alannah Hurley of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, who is part of a coalition fighting the mine.
Hurley told reporters before his arrival, “We have never seen a mine the size of the Pebble project.”
The Environmental Protection Agency has placed restrictions on the proposed mine, which the company is fighting in court.
“Our view is that if the president is interested in the issue he should try to hear from all perspectives about it including those closest to Pebble who would like the jobs Pebble may provide,” said Mike Heatwole, a spokesman for Pebble Limited Partnership.
Obama did not directly address the mine in brief remarks to reporters.
In December, he took steps to designate the fish-rich Bristol Bay area “off limits” for oil and gas leasing to protect the fishing industry.
The White House noted at the time that the area off Alaska’s coast supports a $2 billion annual fishing industry as well as the tourism sector.
“There are other threats to this environment that we’ve always got to be alert to,” Obama said.
The stops in remote communities, at the end of a three-day tour of Alaska, will add to Obama’s legacy of improving ties with Native Americans. He has also traveled by foot and boat to see glaciers that are quickly receding due to climate change.
Obama boasted this week that he will have visited more tribal communities than any previous sitting president by the time he leaves office.