Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Boulder-White Clouds: ‘Mine’ or ‘Ours’?


    A slurry of both good and bad information is circulating regarding the proposed Boulder-White Clouds National Monument.
    Over the past few weeks, inaccurate information is being used to persuade people that mining is not allowed within the proposed monument boundary so there is no reason for any increased protections. This is a misconception. The original threat that led to the creation of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA) was mining. Asarco had proposed a massive, open-pit molybdenum mine at the base of Castle Peak. Everyone who knew the beauty of the area and the impacts of mining knew that open-pit mining was incompatible with protecting clean water, wildlife and recreation.
    As a result, Public Law 92-400, which designated the SNRA, withdrew it from future mining claims. This means that starting in 1972 no new mining claims could be made there. However, more than half of the proposed 591,805-acre monument is outside of the SNRA where mining has not been withdrawn. Even within the SNRA, mining claims filed before 1972 are still valid and the Forest Service has an obligation to process mining plans. While mines the scale of Asarco’s Castle Peak mine cannot be permitted here, smaller mining exploration and development operations can still occur. Just last year, the Forest Service started the permitting process for the Warm Springs Placer mining proposal. The mining project would be located inside the SNRA, alongside the popular “Day Stretch” along the Salmon River, and within the proposed monument boundary. The SNRA act does give the Forest Service the ability to use special considerations when permitting mining operations so they do not “substantially impair” scenic, natural, historical, pastoral or wildlife values of the SNRA.
    Thanks to an alert sent out by ICL, the Forest Service received dozens of comments from folks asking for increased protections to minimize impacts if this mining proposal goes forward. It remains to be seen what mitigation measures will be in place for this project. As of December 2013, the Warm Springs Placer project represented only one of 78 active claims that exist in the proposed monument boundary inside the SNRA. In the monument boundary that does not overlap with the SNRA there are 173 active claims and new claims can be made anytime. Whenever metals prices surge, mining claims and mining activity increases. For example, an analysis by the Environmental Working Group found an 80 percent increase in active mining claims in 12 Western states between January 2003 and July 2007. This boom-and-bust cycle is a recurring theme. I was reminded recently of a proposed zinc mine back in the 1990s along the North Fork of the Big Lost River. The price of zinc dropped and the mine was not pursued. This mine could come back when prices rise again.
    While mining is a part of Idaho’s heritage and provides materials that we all use, we have all seen the adverse impacts of mining on our clean water, fisheries and public health. There are some places where the environmental cost of mining clearly exceeds the economic gain. The Boulder-White Clouds, especially the East Fork Salmon River country, is not a place for mining. A national monument completes the mining withdraw for the entire watershed and is the right move for protecting the clean water and important fisheries that exist here. Highlighting in a monument proclamation the nationally significant values in the Boulder-White Clouds gives us a more diverse toolbox to fight mining proposals when they come to life.

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