Conservationists Object to “Needlessly Destructive” Mining Activities in Idaho’s Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness

Boise, ID – A mining company’s plan to deploy bulldozers, dumptrucks and drilling rigs miles inside the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness is needlessly destructive to this nationally treasured landscape, charge conservation groups.
 
The stated goal of AIMMCO’s proposal is to conduct additional mineral sampling to determine if the claims in question are in fact valid mining claims. Validating these claims is a necessary step for the mining company to proceed with any exploration, development, or production plans.
 
On March 13, the Idaho Conservation League, The Wilderness Society, Earthworks, Friends of the Clearwater, and Wilderness Watch filed joint objections to the Payette National Forest’s preliminary decision to authorize industrial-scale mining claim validation work in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in Central Idaho. The Forest Service released a Draft Record of Decision in December 2014, approving a proposal by American Independence Mines and Minerals (AIMMCO) to perform the work at the Golden Hand site forty miles northeast of McCall.
 
The claim is inside the Frank Church Wilderness and in the headwaters of Big Creek, which flows into the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. The preliminary decision would allow the use of dumptrucks, bulldozers and drilling rigs to open roads, clear drill pads and excavate trenches within the wilderness.  It would also allow 24-7 drilling operations and authorize up to 571 motorized vehicle trips into the Frank Church Wilderness each year for three years.
 
Previously, the U.S. Forest Service denied AIMMCO’s request to undertake a limited amount of claim validation work at Golden Hand. However, a 2002 court decision instructed the Forest Service that, under the Mining Law of 1872, AIMMCO had the right to perform some mineral sampling on these claims. At the same time, the court warned that AIMMCO would have to scale back its original proposal to meet the Forest Service’s duties to minimize impacts to the Frank Church Wilderness and avoid needlessly destructive activities.
 
However, the Forest Service now plans to approve much more extensive and intrusive activities than AIMMCO previously proposed.
 
“In my twenty years of guiding folks down the Middle Fork Salmon, fishing in the pristine pools of Big Creek was the highlight for many of my clients,” said Les Bechdel, retired Middle Fork Salmon River outfitter. “We know how mining accidents can pollute rivers for miles and miles. Mining projects like this simply aren't worth the risk to Idaho's streams. 
 
“The Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness and the Middle Fork of the Salmon River are priceless treasures belonging to the people of Idaho and all Americans,” said John Robison of the Idaho Conservation League. “The mining company has many, many less destructive tools available to determine whether these claims are valid that are more appropriate to this special wilderness setting.”
 
Gary Macfarlane of Friends of the Clearwater said, “We just celebrated, last fall, the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Forest Service must do a better job in protecting the remarkable character of the this large and amazing wilderness.”

“Big Creek and the surrounding tributaries provide some of the best dry fly fishing for cutthroat trout that I've experienced, and harbor a great population of bull trout as well,” said Mike Raymondi, an avid fly fisherman. “It would be a shame to see this sort of mine activity take place in this pristine wilderness that I've recreated in for many years.” 

“It’s unfortunate that protection for the wilderness is hamstrung by the archaic 1872 Mining Law, which was enacted before Idaho achieved statehood,” said Bonnie Gestring of Earthworks. “Yet, the federal agencies can, and should, take steps to reduce the impacts of this project on the Frank Church Wilderness.” 

The groups are asking the Payette Forest Supervisor to reconsider the scope and scale of exploration activities to minimize impacts on wilderness, wildlife habitat and other people using the area. In addition, the groups recommend that for any permitted activity, workers for daily operations should walk the four miles in and out of the wilderness instead of riding in on ATVs or trucks.
 
The federal 1872 Mining Law holds precedence over public land, even though it has not been significantly revised in nearly 150 years. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, and others have introduced H.R. 963, the Hardrock Mineral Reform and Reclamation Act of 2015. The act would empower state, local and tribal governments to petition federal authorities to withdraw lands from mining to protect drinking water, wildlife habitat, cultural and historic resources, or other important values.

The coalition of conservation groups is represented by attorneys Bryan Hurlbutt of Advocates for the West and Roger Flynn of the Western Mining Action Project. “Our goal is to use the objection resolution process to avoid litigation, but the Forest Service has to accept its legal obligation to significantly reduce both the scale this project and the amount of motorized activity in the Frank Church Wilderness,” said Mr. Hurlbutt.