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. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST (NORTH CENTRAL WA)
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, and the chance to work with many different kinds of people and accomplish big conservation outcomes? Do you...
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • ANNUAL FUND MANAGER
    Working closely with the Foundation's leadership, the Annual Fund Manager is responsible for the oversight and management of the Foundation's annual operating fund. This is...
  • DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR
    Looking for someone who loves public land and understands the value and importance of data in reaching shared goals as part of a high-functioning team....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...
  • NEW BOOK: A FEAST OF ECSTATIC VERSE AND IMAGERY
    Dynamic fine art photographer offers use of images to raise funds. Available for use by conservation groups. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com.
  • WANTED: TALENTED WRITER
    Write the introduction to A Feast of Ecstatic Verse and Imagery, a book concerning nature and spirituality. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com. Writer who works for conservation/nature...
  • MT STATE DIRECTOR- THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY
    The Montana State Director is a member of The Wilderness Society's (TWS) Conservation program team who plays a leading role in advancing the organization's mission...
  • HIGH COUNTRY NEWS EDITORIAL INTERNS
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is looking for its next cohort of editorial interns....