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Protecting Wild Salmon and Wild Rivers

US Forest Service should place a mineral withdrawal on critical Smith River watershed

The Smith River, which originates in the wilds of southwest Oregon and flows through northwest California, is the only major undammed river remaining in California. Its free-flowing waters still provide the rare opportunity for wild salmon to make the epic journey from the ocean to the Smith’s headwaters to spawn, as salmon once did in rivers throughout the Pacific Northwest.  The California Department of Fish and Wildlife describes the Smith River as “irreplaceable” with respect to salmon population resiliency and biodiversity.

So it came as welcome news last week that Oregon’s Water Resources Department denied an application from a mining company — Red Flat Nickel Corporation — to withdraw water for mining exploration in the Smith River headwaters.  The Department concluded that the withdrawal wasn’t in the public’s interest, and that there wasn’t enough data to develop mitigation strategies to protect threatened and endangered fish species from likely harm.

White Pines National ParkPhoto by Zachary Collier The Smith River is the only major undammed river remaining in California.

Despite this initial victory, the issue is far from over. Red Flat Nickel — owned by a British investment firm — still seeks to develop a nickel strip mine on 2,900 acres of mining claims on public lands in the Baldface Creek drainage in Oregon, a key tributary of the Smith River. According to the U.S. Forest Service, the Baldface Creek watershed provides near-pristine spawning and rearing habitat and high quality water on which the anadromous fishery of the Smith River depends. But while the Smith River is protected from mining in California as part of the Smith River National Recreation Area, the headwaters in Oregon are not.

"It's a major concern in every possible way: a threat to drinking water, salmon runs and the recreation-based travel and tourism industry that is the single largest part of our economy," says Grant Werschkull, executive director of the Smith River Alliance in Crescent City.

Here’s the kicker. Under the federal 1872 Mining Law, a 140-year old law which still governs hardrock mining today, mining is prioritized over all other land uses, leaving federal land managers little authority to deny a project, regardless of a region’s value as a fishery, drinking water aquifer, or other important land uses. What’s more, under the outdated law, companies can stake an unlimited number of claims on federal public lands and pay no royalties for the minerals they remove.  If Oregon’s decision to deny the Red Flat water permit is successfully appealed or Red Flat Nickel secures an alternative source of water, the project will march forward under the 1872 Mining Law.

There have been several efforts to reform this archaic law. Most recently, in July 2014, US Congressman Peter DeFazio, ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, introduced a mining law reform bill that would give federal land managers the authority to balance mining with other land uses, and say ‘no’ to projects that conflict with other important land uses — such as protecting irreplaceable salmon spawning habitat. Unfortunately, given current political gridlock, it will be challenging to pass this reform bill through Congress anytime soon.

In the meantime, the best tool for protecting these valuable public lands is a mineral withdrawal, which would prevent new mining claims in the area. The Department of the Interior has the administrative authority to make such withdrawals for up to 20 years — which it recently did for lands along the rim of the Grand Canyon. 

Key members of Oregon’s federal delegation strongly support this type of public lands protection. Senator Ronald Wyden, Senator Jeff Merkley, and Representative DeFazio have repeatedly urged the Interior Department to withdraw much of the Smith River headwaters from mining, owing to the inadequacy of the 1872 Mining Law.

“Laws written in 1872 aren’t going to protect public lands in 2010,” Senator Wyden said in a press statement.

Senator Merkley has concurred, saying, “The destruction of our waterways is an unacceptable price of mining Southern Oregon. The mining prohibition that Representative DeFazio, Senator Wyden, and I are requesting will protect the trout fishing areas, salmon runs, and watersheds that make this region such an amazing outdoor haven.”

And there is strong public support as well: Over 15,000 comments were recently delivered to the Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service in support of a mineral withdrawal for public lands in critical Oregon watersheds, including North Fork Smith River and Baldface Creek.

Now is the time to make it happen. The federal agencies should take advantage of this tremendous opportunity to initiate a mineral withdrawal and move forward to protect the Smith River and its valuable fishery.

Bonnie Gestring
Bonnie is based in Missoula, Montana, and has been leading campaigns at Earthworks reduce the destructive impacts of mining since 2001. Bonnie blogs at: http://www.earthworksaction.org//earthblog/byauthor/5

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