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."
Portland OR – Today over 15,000 petition signatures were delivered to the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to support a mineral withdrawal for public lands in critical watersheds in southwest Oregon, including the North Fork Smith River, Baldface Creek, Rough & Ready Creek, and Hunter Creek.
These signatures build upon the request of a broad coalition of local and national conservation groups to withdraw these public lands from mining in response to proposals for nickel strip mining in the area.
Rough and Ready Creek and Baldface Creek are nationally outstanding and “eligible” to be added to the National Wild and Scenic River System. The US Department of Agriculture recommended Congress designate 34,000 acres of their watersheds as Wilderness in 2004. They remain unprotected today.
Today, the Interior Department announced its approval of a mineral withdrawal for 17 miles of a world-class salmon and steelhead river in southwest Oregon. Authorized by Public Land Order #7819, the mineral withdrawal protects 5,610 acres of National Forest land along the Wild and Scenic Chetco River from mining for five years, while Congress considers permanent protection for the river in the Chetco River Protection Act and the Oregon Treasures Act.
“The Wild and Scenic Chetco River is renowned for its singular beauty, recreational opportunities, and epic salmon and steelhead fishing,” said Barbara Ullian of Friends of the Kalmiopsis. “We’re thrilled by the Interior’s decision to approve the withdrawal and want to thank the Forest Service, the Chetco’s congressional champions and the local, regional and national organizations who supported it.”
It was right down to the wire. On June 27th, the Interior Department approved an extension for the mineral withdrawal along the Wild and Scenic Illinois River in Oregon. The existing withdrawal, which was set to expire on June 30th, has now been replaced with a new withdrawal that will protect the river from mining for the next 20 years.
We're thrilled about the withdrawal and the protection it affords this wild and beautiful river, but it does highlight the need for meaningful reform of the 1872 Mining Law, which prioritizes mining over all other land uses.
Once in a while an opportunity comes along, where all the pieces come together just at the right moment. This is that moment for Oregon's Chetco River. Despite its wild and scenic designation, the Chetco is still vulnerable to mining under the 1872 mining law, which prioritizes mining over all other land uses.
The Forest Service recently released an environmental assessment (EA) that makes it clear that suction dredge mining would threaten the outstanding values for which the area was designated - fisheries, water quality and recreation. It emphasizes that these values are critical to the local economy, and they can only be protected through a mineral withdrawal.
Mining Threatens World Class Salmon and Steelhead Stream
The legendary Chetco River, which supports a world-class salmon and steelhead stream, is at risk from a Seattle developer who is planning a resort for hobby miners along more than half of the 44.5-mile National Wild and Scenic segment of the river, including six miles within the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.