Ask festival goers who show up by the thousands every year what attracts them to Salmonfest at Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula Fairgrounds, and they’ll say it’s the music. But the undercurrent is the promotion and conservation of healthy salmon habitat.
“You can’t build an event around a cause,” festival producer Jim Stearns told Fishermen’s News. “People don’t give a damn about the cause. It has to be all about the music first, but even opponents (of the cause) come because it is so cool, and then you get your message out.”
That message—about the importance of sustainable salmon habitat in the ocean and Alaska’s rivers and streams—is provided each year at Salmonfest by a number of nonprofit conservation and other activist entities, plus speakers, including Native Alaskans, on four stages, including a huge amphitheater.
It’s spread during breaks from 60 bands performing throughout the three days of the festival.
During the 2023 event, there were more participating nonprofits than ever, Stearns said, as well as a lot of activism, including some with great concerns about the potential adverse impact of proposed large mines on fish habitat.
At the booth hosted annually by United Tribes of Bristol Bay, community engagement director Judy Jo Matson expressed her criticism of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s decision to pursue legal action from the U.S. Supreme Court, after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declined to approve a Clean Water Act permit needed for development of a copper, gold and molybdenum mine on state land abutting the headwaters of Bristol Bay.
“It’s very disrespectful to residents of our region, for all the work we have done to protect the salmon, the water and our land,” she said.
The “bill of complaint” filed by the state’s Department of Law on July 26 contends that the EPA’s decision violates the state’s right to develop its natural resources for the maximum benefit of its residents.
Other nonprofits with booths at the festival also challenged proposed mining ventures which they contend have great potential to damage the health of salmon habitat. On other sections of the fairgrounds, vendors sold a wide variety of foods and beverages, plus salmon print clothing, salmon skin jewelry and other artistic works.
The festival itself donates thousands of dollars every year to organizations on the frontlines of protecting the health of Alaska’s wild salmon. Since 2015, the festival has donated over $100,000 to salmon and environmental conservation organizations, including the Kachemak Bay Conservation Society and Cook Inletkeeper, two Homer, Alaska-based nonprofits focused on educating the public and protecting the state’s fish habitat.
Other beneficiaries are Alaskans Know Climate Change, Musicians United to Protect Bristol Bay, United Tribes of Bristol Bay and Stand for Salmon. The list also includes five public radio stations, the Homer Library, and school basketball teams in Ninilchik, where the Kenai Peninsula Fairgrounds is located.
This year, the festival sold out a week before the opening date, Friday, Aug. 4, but a number of tickets were reserved for people coming from the Bristol Bay region who were unable to purchase tickets in advance.
“People have no idea how much effort it takes to put this together,” said Stearns, who once worked for the band Grateful Dead. “It takes every fiber of your being. Some people are cowboys or loggers.
I happen to be a festival organizer. I love it, but it is a lot of work.”
The festival prides itself on being a zero waste event, composting vendor wastes as well as recycling. Stearns also noted this year that they managed to halt a major drug dealer in his tracks.
“We have our own undercover guys to find out where these guys are,” he said. “We knew this guy had bad drugs.”
Once spotted, state troopers were called, and they arrested him. So in all, the event came off beautifully, with few problems, Stearns said.
Weeks before the festivities began, Salmonfest announced that the Nashville-based band Old Crow Medicine Show would be a headliner, along with the acts Sierra Ferrell, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong and Leftover Salmon.
Minutes after Old Crow began playing before a crowd that Stearns estimated at about 8,500 people, the band had the crowd cheering, then singing along for the chorus of the song “North to Alaska,” and their most famous tune, “Wagon Wheel.”
They told the crowd they wanted to come back every year.
“Every band wants to come back every year,” Stearns said. “We’re getting on the national map now. But we don’t bring headliners back two years in a row, other than the Alaska bands.”
Although the festival comes to an end every year on Sunday night of the first weekend in August, the staff of Salmonfest is working all year round, always planning ahead for the coming year.
“We have job security,” Stearns said, “because nobody else is crazy enough to pull this off.”