Proposed mine threatens ecosystem

  • Proposed mine in Siskiyou Nat'l Forest, Oregon

    Diane Sylvain
  • Rough and Ready Creek in the Siskiyou National Forest

    Barbara Ullian photo

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."

The land is home to savannas of stunted, gnarled Jeffrey pine, patches of endangered McDonald's rock cress and towering Port Orford cedars.

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 land.

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 seven times.

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.

In 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 March.

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.

The 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 to mine."

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.

Critics say there's good reason to be cautious.

"That's the 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."

The Nature 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.

Even if 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.

"It's the 1872 Mining Law," Ullian says. "It makes miners a privileged part of our society."

Former intern Shea Andersen writes from Eugene, Oregon. Dustin Solberg is an HCN assistant editor.

You can ...

* Send comments to Illinois Valley Ranger District, Siskiyou National Forest, 26568 Redwood Highway, Cave Junction, OR 97523 (541/592-2166);

* Contact Siskiyou Regional Education Project, P.O. Box 220, Cave Junction, OR 97523 (541/592-4459); e-mail: [email protected]

High Country News Classifieds