Ever since fresh intentions to strip mine the headwaters of the North Fork Smith River and other Wild and Scenic streams were made public in late 2012, there has been a tremendous amount of support to protect the marquee streams of the Wild Rivers Coast. This year, 2015, has proven to be the year to harvest those seeds of support.
In late June, the Obama Administration (via the Bureau of Land Management) issued a two-year ban on future mining claims across 100,000-acres of southwest Oregon that have been targeted for nickel, cobalt, chromium and other valuable metals.
The existing mining claims that kick-started opposition efforts are held by Red Flat Nickel Corporation near Baldface Creek, a major tributary of the North Fork Smith and in the Red Flat area of Hunter Creek and Pistol River east of Gold Beach. These claims will remain in place but would have to go through a rigorous validation process including proving the deposits’ profitability before moving forward.
The two-year ban—known as segregation—is intended to maintain the status quo while BLM completes environmental analysis for a five-year mineral withdrawal from the targeted areas. The five-year withdrawal is also meant to maintain the status quo while Congress considers legislation for a permanent withdrawal of the threatened areas.
Mineral withdrawals are one mechanism of protecting public land from mining projects that would otherwise be approved or advanced under the 1872 Mining Law, an antiquated law that allows companies, including foreign-owned corporations like Red Flat, to pay zero royalty dollars to the taxpayer—despite taking millions of dollars worth of minerals from the public commons and leaving a legacy of devastating pollution. The law also does not include any environmental provisions or requirements for mine reclamation or cleanup.
A permanent withdrawal could come through legislation. The Southwestern Oregon Watershed and Salmon Protection Act of 2015 was introduced earlier this year by Oregon Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden and by Congressmen Jared Huffman and Peter DeFazio.
Senator Mike McGuire introduced a Senate Joint Resolution (SJR-3) urging Congress and the President to permanently safeguard the unprotected portions of the North Fork Smith River in Oregon, in June successfully passing both the senate and assembly.
The Smith River watershed in California was withdrawn from mineral entry in 1990 with the creation of the Smith River National Recreation Area, which came on the heels of a nickel mining effort mine near the small hamlet of Gasquet on the Middle Fork Smith River.
“There’s nothing like a strip mine to galvanize support,” said Grant Werschkull of the Smith River Alliance. And in the case of the Smith River and these spectacular streams of the Wild Rivers Coast —there is a national constituency willing to work for protection.”
BLM received an amazing 36,000 comments in favor of the proposed mineral withdrawal.During public comment meetings in Gold Beach and Grants Pass this September, more than two hundred wild river supporters attended each meeting and spoke against the mining projects.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife sent Michael vanHattem to the Grants Pass public meeting to explain the agency’s opposition to any strip mining in the Smith River watershed, calling it one of two “irreplaceable” watersheds in California in respect to salmonid population resiliency and biodiversity. His remarks inspired a resounding ovation from the crowd.
In Del Norte, there has been unanimous opposition to the strip mining proposals and support for the mineral withdrawal. The Board of Supervisors unanimously opposed Red Flat’s application to use surface water for test drilling in the North Fork Smith watershed, saying that the project would cause “significant adverse environmental impacts” in the watershed possibly impacting the major drinking water source for county residents.
“It is with this in mind the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors adamantly opposes this application or any application that would result in future strip mining in the Smith River watershed,” the Board’s July 2014 letter states.
The Board of Supervisors, the Crescent City Council, the Gasquet and Big Rock Community Service Districts, Redwood National Park, and the Crescent City-Del Norte Chamber of Commerce and Visitor’s Bureau all submitted letters in support of the proposed mineral withdrawal in September.
Visit smithriveralliance.org for more information.