Washington D.C., Feb 26 — By a 227 to 200 vote, today the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Southwestern Oregon Watershed and Salmon Protection Act, (SOWSPA) amended to House Bill 803, the Protect America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act. SOWSPA, introduced by Representatives DeFazio (D-OR) and Huffman (D-CA), calls for a temporary mineral withdrawal in the area to be made permanent. It now goes to the Senate, where Oregon Senators Wyden and Merkley will push for its passage.
A broad coalition of tribes, local governments, local businesses, conservation groups, sportsmen and commercial fishermen came together to protect the area’s Wild and Scenic Rivers, world class fisheries, and exceptional recreational opportunities from the threat of mining in the headwaters of the Wild and Scenic Smith, Rogue and Illinois rivers and Hunter Creek and North Fork Pistol rivers. In 2016, the Obama Administration approved the 20-year Southwestern Oregon Mineral Withdrawal to provide interim protection for 101,000 acres of river-rich National Forest and BLM lands. Communities in this remote corner of Northwest California and Southwest Oregon depend on these rivers for drinking water, outdoor-recreation, a fishing and tourism-based economy, and rural way of life.
“The headwaters of our wild rivers are no place for strip mining. We’re grateful that Rep. DeFazio has been such a champion for protecting Southwest Oregon’s cherished rivers as National treasures,” said Ann Vileisis, President of the Kalmiopsis Audubon Society.
“Owning a business that depends on thriving rivers and clear water, I really appreciate that Rep. DeFazio has pushed hard to protect the headwaters of our Wild Rivers Coast streams. It means a lot to my family and community,” said Dave Lacey, owner of South Coast Tours in Gold Beach, Oregon.
“These rivers are the lifeblood of this rugged corner of southwest Oregon and northwest California. We’re thrilled to see this bill pass the House and so appreciative of Rep.s DeFazio and Huffman. It’s been a decade’s long local effort to protect these national treasures,” said Barbara Ullian of Friends of the Kalmiopsis.
“We’re heartened by the permanent protection that this legislation provides for some of our nation’s most beautiful wild rivers,” said Bonnie Gestring, northwest program director at Earthworks.
In 2012, the Red Flat Nickel Corporation, a subsidiary of St. Peter Port Capital—a foreign investment company (registered in the Guernsey Islands)—proposed plans for drilling exploration on public lands in the headwaters of these rivers. Extracting minerals from low grade nickel laterite soils requires removal of large amounts of overburden, essentially strip mining that disturbs large areas and generates large volumes of mine waste.
In 2017, the State of Oregon designated 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.
The 20-year mineral withdrawal underwent two years of environmental analysis, three public comment periods and three local public hearings that demonstrated overwhelming support. Public comment was 99.7% in support.
Absent reform of the 1872 Mining Law, mineral withdrawals are essential tools to protect other valued public land uses on National Forests. Under the 140-year old law, mining is prioritized over all other land uses.