NOEL KING, HOST:
In Alaska, a ballot measure is cutting right to the heart of the state's identity. It's pitting Alaskans' love for salmon against another powerful force - the oil and mining industries. Elizabeth Harball has the story. She's with Alaska's Energy Desk and NPR's energy and environment team.
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ELIZABETH HARBALL, BYLINE: Easing his boat across Whiskers Creek, Mike Wood points out a mass of shadows undulating just beneath the current - the last of this year's salmon arriving here to spawn.
MIKE WOOD: There's some humpies, silvers - some chum's in there too two.
HARBALL: Wood's a small-scale commercial salmon fishermen and a consummate Alaskan. Today he's sporting a camo jacket and a gun on his back in case we run into a moose. He anchors his boat to have a look.
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HARBALL: Wood's also helping lead the Stand for Salmon campaign for a ballot measure aimed at protecting the state's most iconic fish. Walking along the creek, Woods says he thinks it's a long overdue change.
WOOD: The scale has been tipped too far in favor of development and industry. And we're just trying to pull it back towards the center.
HARBALL: Alaska has some of the most valuable salmon fisheries left in the world. But Wood and other ballot supporters say the state's laws protecting salmon are weak, putting them at risk - especially with a number of large new mines and oil developments in the works. If it passes, Alaska would enact a much tougher permitting process for big projects in salmon habitat. Among other things, it would set strict standards for restoring salmon streams if they're disturbed. And if companies don't follow the rules, they could face criminal penalties. Wood acknowledges that in a state like Alaska it's a big ask.
WOOD: When you start doing something like this, it's really kind of thumbing your nose at the big guys, you know.
HARBALL: For decades, Alaska's economy has depended on industry dollars. And oil and mining companies hate this initiative. Banded together under the name Stand for Alaska, they're backing a campaign to stop it - running a blitz of ads like this one.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It claims to protect fish habitat, but it actually imposes burdensome new regulations that slow or stop Alaska projects.
HARBALL: Companies have poured millions into the campaign against the ballot measure. With help from donors like BP and ExxonMobil, they've now raised more money than all three of Alaska's gubernatorial candidates combined. Karen Matthias is with the Council of Alaska Producers, the group that represents mining companies. And she argues the state's salmon fisheries have so far coexisted with mines and oil developments just fine.
KAREN MATTHIAS: Completely changing the way we regulate fish habitat at a time when we don't have a clear problem just seems crazy.
HARBALL: Matthias thinks the initiative prioritizes salmon at the expense of the state's biggest economic engines and taxpayers.
MATTHIAS: We couldn't have the Alaska government that we have if it was only dependent on fisheries. It just wouldn't be possible.
HARBALL: But for many Alaskans, salmon are more than just a living or the occasional meal. Here, they represent something deeper. They're a vital food source and a traditional way of life in one of the last states where wild rivers still teem with them every summer. So when voters head to the polls this November, they'll be weighing that against fears that a measure to protect salmon could rattle the state's economic foundation. For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Harball in Anchorage.
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KING: That report came to us from Alaska's Energy Desk. It's a public media collaboration focused on energy and the environment.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLOWEN'S "IN THIS TOGETHER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.