It's good news this week! The Interior Secretary announced a public land order to safeguard 100,000 acres of public lands in southwest Oregon — renowned for the wild and scenic rivers, prolific salmon and steelhead runs, and exceptionally clear waters. The mineral withdrawal will protect these lands from new mining claims for 20-years to give congress time to consider more lasting protection.
The ancient laterite soils that make this region so unique have attracted mining interests who want to strip-mine for low-grade nickel deposits. Despite broad opposition, the Forest Service says their hands are tied by the archaic 1872 Mining Law, which prioritizes mining over all other land uses. Crazy as it sounds, it’s true. This law, which was enacted when women still wore hoop skirts, still governs hardrock mining on our federal lands today.
In response, key members of the Oregon and California congressional delegation, Senators Wyden and Merkeley and Representatives Defazio and Huffman, responded to local concern, and asked the Interior Department to withdraw these federal lands from mineral entry under the 1872 Mining Law for 20 years, while they push for congress to consider more lasting protection in the Southwestern Oregon Watershed and Salmon Protection Act of 2015 (S. 346 and H.R. 682).
“Allowing mining claims in these areas threatens some of Southern Oregon’s most unique natural treasures,” letter to the Secretary of Interior and Agriculture from Oregon’s Sen. Ron Wyden, Sen. Jeff Merkley and Rep. Peter DeFazio. In February 2015, the Interior Department got the ball rolling, initiating the mineral withdrawal process.
Across the region, local interests jumped in with their support, including commercial fishermen, city and county government, tribes, and scientists. The outstanding natural resources afforded by these public lands are an important economic driver for the region, and provide clean drinking water for downstream communities. “As the largest trade association of commercial fishing families on the west coast, we at PCFFA (together with IFR) urge you to protect the headwaters of the Wild and Scenic Illinois and Smith Rivers and the Wild Rivers Coast from proposed nickel and other strip mines.” – letter from Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association.
“Straddling the Oregon-California border, the K-S bioregion contains some of the largest concentration of intact watersheds on the west coast and world renowned biodiversity. These exceptionally high resource values, including several federal candidate and listed species, makes mining incompatible with the resource values and conservation investments in the bioregion.” – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, September 2015
In April 28, 2016, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management released their environmental review of the proposed mineral withdrawal for public comment. The response was overwhelming. Hundreds of people packed the public meetings – expressing their support. And, 99.9% of the written comments supported protection.
On January 12, the public land order appeared in the Federal Register to much acclaim.
“Protecting Northern California's spectacular wild and scenic Smith River, the key source of drinking water for many communities and a stronghold for salmon and steelhead, is the only responsible thing to do”, said Congressman Huffman in a press release with Congressman Defazio. “Keeping new mining activities out of the Smith and its tributaries has been an important priority for me, and I have been glad to have such a partner in my friend Peter DeFazio of Oregon, whose district shares the watershed. I am also pleased that the administration is acting on our recommendation to prohibit potentially hazardous mining in this sensitive watershed.“