Cave Junction, Ore. - In the red rock that rises above southwest Oregon's Rough and Ready Creek, a unique ecosystem flourishes.
"(The soil) has a composition that's
totally off-kilter with what's in the earth's crust," says retired
Stanford University geologist Robert Coleman. "Most plants don't
like that," but, he adds, an odd variety flourishes there. "You end
up with a flora that's very incredible."
land is home to savannas of stunted, gnarled Jeffrey pine, patches
of endangered McDonald's rock cress and towering Port Orford
The land is also rich in another way - a
way that conflicts with the ecological uniqueness. Beneath this
community of 300 species of plants lie deposits of nickel, iron ore
and chromium. A would-be mine developer named Walt Freeman says the
deposits are minable, and he wants to develop claims that his
father staked in the Rough and Ready Creek watershed almost 60
years ago. He applied for the patents on 154 mining claims in the
Siskiyou National Forest in 1992, and his plans call for four
mining pits spread over 35 acres of public
There's more to the project than pits.
Freeman and his company, NICORE, will need a string of roads on the
edge of the Kalmiopsis roadless area, which borders the Kalmiopsis
Wilderness Area. Trucks hauling ore would travel a 14-mile-long
network of roads that would cross and recross Rough and Ready Creek
Digging this mine is Freeman's
dream, and he has been spending $15,000 a year just to keep the
claims in his name.
While Freeman tries to push
his mine application through the Forest Service bureaucracy,
environmentalists are busy pushing back by leading wildflower hikes
into the area and inundating the Forest Service with protest
letters. A draft environmental impact statement drew about 3,000
letters; 18 of those supported the mine.
addition to the ecological issues, some wonder about profitability.
The market for nickel ore is a shadow of its former self. A local
mine, the Riddle Nickel Mine, recently closed and the last
nickel-ore smelter in Oregon shut for good in
But whatever the economic and ecological
questions, the General Mining Law of 1872 grants hardrock mining a
privileged position on the public land. And that means the Forest
Service has to study the proposal. By the time the final EIS is
completed, the Siskiyou National Forest will have spent $350,000 on
two draft environmental impact statements (the first draft left
questions unanswered; the second draft will be out in November) and
on the final version, due out this summer.
biggest unanswered question, says Rochelle Deffer, who leads the
Forest Service EIS team, is practicality: "Is the (mining) plan
they submitted reasonable? In my discussions with the miner, he
says, "Well, let me try," "''''says Deffer.
Freeman, who claims to have developed a new
technique to cook the ore, says, "If we were going to (process
nickel ore) the old-fashioned way, we wouldn't see any economic
value in the project. If this is not economic, then we're not going
Freeman says he is caught in a federal
Catch-22. Until the Forest Service approves his plan, Freeman says
he can't seek financing. But until Freeman gets financing, the
Forest Service remains skeptical.
there's good reason to be cautious.
greatest concentration of rare plants in Oregon," says Darren
Borgias of The Nature Conservancy. "You get a lot of bang for your
buck in terms of conservation."
Conservancy owns 60 acres near the proposed mine. Two public-land
agencies - the Bureau of Land Management and the Siskiyou National
Forest - have recognized 14 sensitive plants in the area with
special protection zones which the road network would pass through
them. The creek was also named a candidate for Wild and Scenic
River status in 1993.
"It's in an area that's
just so unique, it's irreplaceable," says Barbara Ullian of the
Siskiyou Regional Education Project.
Freeman's plan makes sense economically, it might not survive.
Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden and four Democratic representatives from
Oregon - Peter DeFazio, Elizabeth Furse, Earl Blumenauer and
Darlene Hooley - have asked U.S. Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck
to stop the mine. And during a recent visit to Oregon, Interior
Secretary Bruce Babbitt met with a half-dozen environmentalists
battling the mine and the law that may permit
"It's the 1872 Mining Law," Ullian says. "It
makes miners a privileged part of our society."
* Shea Andersen and
Former intern Shea
Andersen writes from Eugene, Oregon. Dustin Solberg is an HCN
* Send comments to Illinois Valley Ranger
District, Siskiyou National Forest, 26568 Redwood Highway, Cave
Junction, OR 97523 (541/592-2166);
Siskiyou Regional Education Project, P.O. Box 220, Cave Junction,
OR 97523 (541/592-4459); e-mail: email@example.com.