It’s the Right Time for River Protection – Smith River OR/CA

In California, Oregon by steelheaders

By Jack E. Williams : This first ran in the Medford Mail Tribune

2014 JUL 28: The Elk River Salmon Emphasis Area outside of Port Orford, OR.

Big-time mining could change the face of some of our most iconic Oregon rivers. Large mines have been proposed for years in the Rough and Ready Creek area and now a foreign mining corporation proposes test drilling for nickel in the beautiful headwater area of Baldface Creek in the North Fork Smith River, and in the North Fork Pistol River and Hunter Creek watersheds in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

Test drilling is the first step toward production that would include new roads, surface mines and slag heaps. The North Fork Smith is a gem: a big salmon and steelhead producer and the water supply for a number of northern California communities. A big nickel mine would be an unwelcomed game changer for everyone downstream.

Like any valuable asset, our rivers and streams must be protected.
Rivers are the lifeblood of our region. They provide our drinking water, abundant salmon and steelhead, whitewater rafting and a much-needed place for the family to gather for a cool hike or swim. Their value is never more evident than during this year’s record hot, dry summer.

But the value of rivers goes well beyond these common uses and extends into another dimension. Time seems suspended along rivers. Our frantic world slows to the pace of water moving along the shoreline. Sitting in the shade of a large pine or cottonwood along a stream is like stepping back in time. Childlike, we toss pebbles into the water and once again find joy in simple things.
Curry County knows the long-term value of these rivers and, much to their credit, the county commissioners have formally objected to the mine plans.

Oregon’s political leaders in Washington, D.C., know the value of these rivers too. Sen. Ron Wyden has introduced S. 346, the Southwest Oregon Watershed and Salmon Protection Act of 2015. Rep.Peter DeFazio has a companion bill, H.R. 682, introduced in the House. Both bills would provide long-term protection from large mining projects through withdrawal of lands for new mining operations. Neither bill would affect valid existing rights.

The bills also provide long-overdue designations for regional rivers under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Sections of the Chetco River would be designated as wild, scenic or recreational under the act, providing protection from new mining claims and mineral leasing. These bills would ensure that the Chetco runs free and clear for all Oregonians to enjoy.

These bills deserve our support and their authors deserve our thanks. But, getting these measures through Congress and signed by the president will take time.
Federal agencies have stepped in to fill the gap. On June 29, the Bureau of Land Management published a notice of withdrawal of BLM and national forest lands along these rivers from mineral entry for up to five years. There is a 90-day window to show our support for this measure to make sure we have protection while the legislation works through the maze on Capitol Hill.

Comments are needed in support of the withdrawal and can be sent to the BLM state office in Portland. It would be a shame to lose the long-term value of these rivers for short-term economic greed.

Water is a precious resource in the West. As a fisheries biologist and former federal land manager, I can cite volumes on the importance of local rivers to our livelihood. But you don’t need a graduate degree to realize the value of clean, free-flowing water. We all depend on these resources.

When was the last time you saw local elected officials, our congressional representatives and federal agencies all come together for a common purpose? It takes something of great value, like our rivers, to bring us all together. Now, it’s our turn. Let us speak for our rivers.

Jack Williams is chief scientist for Trout Unlimited and former supervisor of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.