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River of No Return

A raft carrying River Discovery program cancer survivors makes its way down the Main Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho in August. The RD mission statement reads: “River adventures for cancer survivors that promote healing and strengthen the body, mind and spirit.”

Should a miner walk 3 miles to work?

A court decision blocking exploration of a proposed gold mine in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness reveals the challenge of balancing the 1872 Mining Law with the Wilderness Act of 1964. The one law allows mining on public land. The other limits how the public may travel or work on federal wilderness.

“The conflict between these laws is obvious – mining will never be compatible with wilderness,” District Judge Lynn Winmill wrote in his Tuesday decision. “Yet Congress has decreed that they must co-exist at times.”

Winmill ordered Payette National Forest officials to reconsider their decision allowing the American Independence Mines and Minerals Co. to reopen the Golden Hand mine. Among his reasons, he found the Forest Service could have required the miners to walk the 3 miles to the work site instead of driving in and out every day.

The Golden Hand mine was founded in 1889 in Idaho’s Salmon River Mountains southwest of Darby. Its main tunnel entrance collapsed sometime in the 1920s, and no production took place after 1941. The claim lay dormant for decades before AIMMCO proposed reopening it in 2007. To do so, it had to prove there was a marketable amount of minerals to be recovered. And to do that, it needed permission from the Forest Service to drill, trench and drive into the mine site.

AIMMCO proposed building 13 drill pads, an unspecified number of trenches and a bunkhouse for its workers at the site. The company met confidentially with Forest Service officials in 2009. While District Ranger Joe Harper found numerous problems with the presentation, the agency authorized the revised project in 2015. The record of decision allowed the company to use bulldozers to build 4 miles of road into the wilderness, construct up to 11 drill pads, and drive up to 571 times into the wilderness each field season.

The judge ruled “the Forest Service did not reveal its analysis in reaching some conclusions, may have relied on information provided in confidence not available to the public for review, and made an error in reaching one conclusion that may have affected the result.” He sent the matter back to the Forest Service to correct those errors.

For example, the mining company proposed allowing the workers to commute into the site with up to 400 vehicle trips per work season. The Forest Service considered making the workers ride horses, but concluded the stock impact on the land was too great. The judge found its argument for skipping the walking option less persuasive.

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“That error could have affected its ultimate conclusion that ‘there is no clear benefit to wilderness character’ from requiring workers to walk to the site rather than be transported by motorized vehicle,” he wrote.

Winmill noted that the Forest Service did extensive analysis of some mining claims that weren’t part of the argument, but apparently failed to do so for the ones at issue. He ordered the agency to reveal whatever confidential information the company, provided that justified its claims the development was necessary.

“(W)hatever calculus the Forest Service engaged in to conclude internally that AIMMCO’s project reduced impacts to their minimum was not shared with the public in any written analysis,” Winmill wrote. “That violates NEPA" – the National Environmental Policy Act.

The case was brought by the Idaho Conservation League, The Wilderness Society, Earthworks, Friends of the Clearwater and Wilderness Watch.

“The court has granted a necessary reprieve to the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness,” Wilderness Watch executive director George Nickas said in an email. “Now it’s up to the Forest Service to show a far greater concern for the wilderness if or when it completes the court-ordered reanalysis of this terribly destructive mining plan.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.