The campaign to protect Southwest Oregon headwaters from strip mining gains momentum!

The headwaters to some of our nation’s most unique and beautiful National Wild and Scenic Rivers are in Southwest Oregon. These emerald-hued waters flow through the botanical wonderland of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness to Redwood National Park and spectacular beaches of the Pacific Coast—and host some of the last best native salmon and steelhead runs in the lower 48. Local communities depend on these rivers for drinking water, outdoor-recreation, a fishing- and tourism-based economy, and rural way of life. 

In 2012, the Red Flat Nickel Corporation, a subsidiary of St. Peter Port Capital—a foreign investment company (registered “offshore” in the Guernsey Islands)—proposed plans for mineral exploration on public lands in the headwaters of these rivers, citizens in southern Oregon and northern California mounted a series of successful conservation initiatives to protect these resources from harmful nickel mining. Nickel laterite ores are close to the surface and low grade, resulting in strip mining operations that disturb large areas and generate large volumes of mine waste.  

A broad coalition of tribes, local governments, local businesses, conservation groups, sportsmen and commercial fishermen came together in opposition. They garnered the support of U.S. Congressmen Peter DeFazio and Jared Huffman, and U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, who introduced legislation—the Southwestern Oregon Watershed and Salmon Protection Act—to permanently “withdraw” these vulnerable areas from mineral entry, including the headwaters of the renowned National Wild and Scenic Smith, Illinois and Rogue rivers, as well as Hunter Creek and Pistol River. The Senators and Congressmen in turn requested that the U.S. Secretary of the Interior provide interim protection to give Congress time to pass the law. 

In response, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management conducted an extensive public outreach process, with hearings in three communities that drew hundreds of local people, dressed in blue, to support conservation of clean water, wild rivers and salmon. In 2016, the Obama Administration approved a 20-year Southwestern Oregon Mineral Withdrawal to provide protection for 101,000 acres of river-rich lands of the Kalmiopsis and Wild Rivers Coast.

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 biodiversityThe mineral withdrawal is needed because the Service believes that mining activities are incompatible with the high resource values of this bioregion ...” – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service letter to BLM, September 2015. 

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. We respectfully ask you to protect these waterways, which (as key salmon producing rivers) are crucially important to our livelihoods and those of our members, many of whom harvest salmon for all or part of their living.” – Letter to BLM re mineral withdrawal from Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association. 

In addition, the coalition successfully petitioned the State of Oregon to designate the pristine North Fork Smith River and all its tributaries and associated wetlands as “Outstanding Resource Waters,” under the U.S. Clean Water Act—a designation reserved only for the finest waters in the United States that imposes stringent requirements to preserve superb water quality.

Just recently, Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley introduced the River Democracy Act. The visionary conservation bill would designate many more miles of exceptional rivers in Southwestern Oregon as “Wild and Scenic,” requiring public lands agencies to manage these streams to protect their outstanding values, including clear water, recreation, and fisheries. 

And the latest chapter in this effort came just last week, when Representatives Peter DeFazio and Jared Huffman re-introduced the Southwestern Oregon Watershed and Salmon Protection Act, with aims of advancing it into the new Congress. It was amended to House Bill 803 today, with a vote in the House of Representatives likely on Friday.

Red Flat Nickel Corporation continues to assert that it has “valid rights” in one area, but local communities and their elected leaders have made it clear, the headwaters of the extraordinary streams of the Kalmiopsis-Wild Rivers Coast are no place for destructive nickel strip mining. 

Earthworks is proud to partner with the coalition of local activists in this important multi-pronged campaign to protect the wild rivers of southwest Oregon. We will be extending our support, once again, for passage of these important conservation bills. 

Areas in the Southwestern Oregon Mineral Withdrawal include:

  • The headwaters of the National Wild and Scenic North Fork Smith and Smith rivers—renowned for crystal clear water, wild steelhead and salmon runs, rare plants, recreation, fishing, towering redwoods, Redwood National Park, drinking water supply
  • The headwaters of the National Wild and Scenic Illinois and Rogue rivers—renowned for crystal clear water, the highest concentration of rare plants in Oregon, wild steelhead and salmon runs, recreation, drinking water supply 

The headwaters of Hunter Creek and North Fork Pistol River—beloved for unique botanical areas, rugged backcountry, proposed Wild and Scenic rivers, biking, hiking, fishing and swimming.

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Photo: Pistol River headwaters is no place for Red Flat Nickel’s strip mining. Credit: “Ken Morrish, Fly Water Travel”