The Idaho Conservation League is unearthing a new strategy in environmental activism: partnering with a mine operator. When the deadline to appeal the U.S. Forest Service's approval of a cobalt mine near Salmon arrived two weeks ago, Idaho's largest environmental group was not among those who filed.
"We've gotten pretty good at whacking projects in the past," said ICL Public Lands Director Jon Robison. "When we looked at this Idaho Cobalt Project and they said they're going to bond in perpetuity we said, 'Hey, let's have a discussion.' This project deserves scrutiny, but it also deserves credit for doing some things right."
In June the Forest Service approved Canada-based Formation Capital's plan to invest $138 million to mine more than 1,500 tons of cobalt annually from a mine about 20 miles west of Salmon in the Panther Creek drainage. The region is rich in the mineral, used in electric car batteries, jet engines and other machines.
One of the conditions of the mine's approval is that the mining company provide a bond to cover costs of treating water that might run out of the mine after it closes. Formation Capital said its design will prevent that.
"The most important concern to us is bonding for water treatment in perpetuity," Robison said. "Mines across the West have a disastrous record when it comes to contaminating water. In this case Formation Capital has committed to treating water in perpetuity after closure should it be necessary."
Formation Capital and the ICL plan to maintain an active relationship to closely monitor the project's progress and to fund a conservation action program.
The Canadian mining company and the environmental group announced two weeks ago a joint project for environmental projects in the Upper Salmon River region near the mine's planned location. Formation Capital said it will pay $150,000 a year for the life of the mine for a series of projects to be picked by a panel that includes the ICL, the Nez Perce and Shoshone-Bannock tribes and residents of Lemhi and Custer counties.
"Instead of appealing the proposed mine, the Idaho Conservation League believes it can accomplish more to further protect Idaho's water, fish and wildlife by working with Formation Capital," ICL Executive Director Rick Johnson stated in a press release.
Johnson said all mines pose considerable environmental challenges, but Formation Capital is taking additional steps beyond the minimum requirements posed by federal and state regulations.
"As such, the Idaho Conservation League is not challenging the Forest Service's record of decision or the environmental impact statement (issued in June)," Johnson said.
Some of Johnson's fellow environmentalists, however, are. And so have other mines in the area.
According to the Forest Service, the project has been appealed by Noranda Mining, Noranda Exploration Inc. and the Blackbird Mining Co. Lt. Partnership, Boulder White Clouds Council and Earthworks, the Nez Perce Tribe and a man by the name of Charles Pace.
But it's a relatively short list that was kept short, in part, because of the ICL's position and involvement, Formation Capital said.
"What is unusual is that there are only four, which I think is a testament to the Idaho Cobalt Project's solid mine plan," said Preston Rufe, environmental manager for the project. "Preservation of the environment has always been considered a high priority. We believe the Idaho Conservation League's announcement last week not to appeal the Idaho Cobalt Project record of decision was also a factor (in other groups' not appealing)."
The ICL's decision not to appeal and to support the mine is an unusual one. The group has made waves in the conservation community for the concessions it and The Wilderness Society have made to secure wilderness designation for part of the Boulder and White Cloud mountains. Arguably the debate over wilderness in those mountains split the traditionally united environmental community.
But Johnson said change in the wilderness debate is necessary.
"I've been working on environmental issues for a long time, and I've watched us lose our position in the public discourse, and I've watched Americans stop identifying themselves as environmentalists," Johnson said during a 2005 interview in Washington, D.C. prior to a Congressional hearing on the controversial wilderness bill his organization has supported. "I think what we do is important. If we don't evolve our tactics with that we're dumb. Things that don't evolve go extinct."
Asked what she thinks about ICL's involvement with Formation Capital on the Idaho Cobalt Project, Boulder White Clouds Council Executive Director Lynne Stone said, simply, "I'm kind of curious about it, too."