The Siskiyou National Forest, home to five Wild and Scenic rivers, a healthy salmon and steelhead population, and rare salamanders and wolverines, just lost protection from the drill.
In January 2001, then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt placed a temporary moratorium on new mining leases for more than 1.2 million acres of the forest. The Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service were supposed to complete environmental studies and then recommend to current Secretary Gale Norton what level of protection the lands should receive.
But in late May, prior to completing those studies, the BLM and the Forest Service reopened 90 percent of the lands - more than a million acres - to new mining claims.
The agencies say existing federal and state environmental laws will adequately protect the lands. "We don't anticipate additional mining claims being filed as a result of the withdrawal," says BLM spokeswoman Karen Gillepsie, "and mining in that area is primarily characterized as recreational or hobbyist mining."
But critics see the reversal as another example of the Bush administration's tendency to bend rules in favor of the mining industry.
"Recreational mining is not the only type of mining that occurs in the Siskiyou," says Barbara Ulliam of the Siskiyou Regional Education Project. "And most mining takes place along streambeds."
The two federal agencies will hold a joint public hearing in September concerning management of the 116,830 acres they are still recommending for protection.