Southwest Alaska is a vast, sparsely populated, largely roadless region of isolated villages, mountains, rivers, muskeg, and tundra. Jobs are scarce and industry is all but unheard of. But that's likely to change in the next decade.
One of the world's largest gold deposits lies in Southwest Alaska ten miles from the tiny Kuskokwim River village of Crooked Creek. The Donlin Gold Project holds probable reserves of an estimated 33.9 million ounces of gold with an average grade of 2.2 grams per tonne, according to Kurt Parkan, external affairs manager for Donlin Gold. Another approximately 6 million ounces of gold is inferred.
According to parent company Nova-Gold, this puts Donlin Gold "well within the top 1 percent of known global gold deposits in terms of size."
"This is a really big deal," Parkan says. "The project itself is large, both the amount of the resource and the number of people employed. It's particularly large for a region that has had no industry in the past."
Placer gold was first discovered in the region in 1909, and small-scale mining took place over the ensuing decades. In the mid-1980s, geologists took a closer look at the area and in 1988 discovered a world-class ore body. It's a game-changer for the residents of the area, with its effects felt statewide once production begins.
The surface land is owned by The Kuskokwim Corporation, a consortium of ten villages. The subsurface belongs to Calista Corporation, a regional Native corporation that encompasses fifty-six villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region.
In the past, Calista has indicated strong support for responsible development of natural resources and is working closely with Donlin Gold to plan for work force development. Any production is still years away as Donlin Gold works through a many-tiered process of reports, studies, permits, and construction that must be completed before the first bar of gold is produced.
All of the additional work will give the company a better sense of what the scope of the project entails, how to best protect the environment, and make the most of the mine economically, Parkan says.
Parkan said there are too many variables in the process for him to be able to give even a ballpark estimate of when the mine would open.
"Once permitting is done, construction will take nearly four years," he says. "We anticipate permitting to take a good four years and we started in 2012. You can do your own math, but I'm not able to give you a...