Idaho mining dispute raises questions about the future of wilderness

A grandfathered mining claim has opened the doors to development.


“Nothing in this Act shall prevent within national forest wilderness areas any activity, including prospecting, for the purpose of gathering information about mineral or other resources, if such activity is carried on in a manner compatible with the preservation of the wilderness environment.” — The Wilderness Act 

"Be it enacted... that all valuable mineral deposits in lands belonging to the United States, both surveyed and unsurveyed, are hereby declared to be free and open to exploration and purchase." — General Mining Act of 1872

In 1984 —
just a few months before he died from cancer — longtime Idaho Sen. Frank Church saw his name added to the 2.4 million acre wilderness he had spent his career trying to protect. The Frank Church - River of No Return Wilderness is a craggy slab that cuts the Gem State in half, wound through by the classic whitewater of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Like all federally designated wilderness, it carries the highest form of land protection in the United States. There are no roads, and motors and machines aren’t allowed, except where grandfathered in.

The Frank is also where I first cut my teeth in the West. Because of its wilderness designation and utter remoteness, I worked harder there than I’d ever worked in my life. My crew and I hauled our heavy trail-building tools dozens of miles through the forest, sawed into giant fallen logs with crosscuts (because chainsaws weren’t allowed) and swung a doublejack until our shoulders doubled in size, smashing rock into gravel. It was grueling. And rewarding. 

So why, then, did the Forest Service just approve a mining company’s request to build a four-mile road and make as many as 571 trips a year with bulldozers, dump trucks and drill rigs into the Frank Church? 

Rafting the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, in the Frank Church - River of No Return Wilderness.
Northwest Rafting

According to Keith Lannom, Payette National Forest supervisor, it comes down to the 1872 Mining Act. When the Wilderness Act was created in 1964, its authors (including Frank Church) couldn’t overturn the 1872 Mining Act, so they allowed valid mining claims made prior to wilderness designation to continue. The Golden Hand deposit, on the western edge of the Frank Church Wilderness, was discovered in 1889, and a number of court cases over the past decade have determined that its latest owner — American Independence Mines and Minerals Co. has the right to prove whether the long-dormant claim is still valid. So Lannom has to allow it to be prospected. 

The question is how? Should an 1880s gold mine in a wilderness area be explored with pack animals and pickaxes, or with bulldozers and jackhammers?

Unsurprisingly, wilderness groups are advocating for the former. Last week, less than a month after the Forest Service approved a plan that will bring jackhammers, dump trucks and drill rigs into the Frank as well as suck up to 25,000 gallons of water per day from Coin Creek and construct 11 drill pads a coalition of conservation groups sued, hoping to force the federal agency to scale back.

“The proposal doesn’t reflect that this area is a wilderness area, for God’s sake,” says George Nickas, executive director of Montana-based Wilderness Watch, which was among the groups to sue. “The law allows for a minimal amount of work on the claims to prove whether or not they’re valid, and that’s all the Forest Service should be allowing. They need to recognize (the miner’s) rights but they shouldn’t put his desires above that of their responsibility to the public to preserve the wilderness.”

Nickas and others fear that the operation could jeopardize the integrity of the Frank Church - River of No Return Widerness and have serious consequences on water quality and fish habitat. But they also see the case as precedent setting. With improved mining technology and relatively high markets, other mining claims grandfathered into wilderness areas are facing similar pressures, including in Montana’s Cabinet Wilderness and Oregon’s Kalmiopsis. “The next time this kind of issue pops up, people are going to look to what happens here for guidance and direction,” Nickas says. “And when you have forest supervisors who are rolling over and doing what mining companies want, that sets a bad precedent.”

Recent comment threads from recreation sites around the web express outrage that miners will be allowed to ride to their claims in pickup trucks but mountain bikers still can’t ride the trails. Or that mining companies can use machines to make life easier but trail crews are still relegated to hand tools. As one mountain biker wrote, the takeaway from all of this may be “that the Wilderness Act is not some Holy Grail.” 

Idaho Chief Judge B. Lynn Winmill will determine whether, in fact, that’s the case, but likely not for another year or two. In the meantime, environmental groups may seek an injunction to try to halt development of the Golden Hand claim. 

Krista Langlois is a correspondent for High Country News. 

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