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Land Board approves mining lease on Salmon River over protests

Idaho Land Board hears testimony about a proposed mining lease on the Salmon River on Tuesday (Betsy Russell)
Idaho Land Board hears testimony about a proposed mining lease on the Salmon River on Tuesday (Betsy Russell)

Idaho's state Land Board voted unanimously this morning to approve a mineral lease for recreational dredge mining on the Salmon River, over objections from the Idaho Conservation League and longtime anglers on the river, who said suction dredge mining there is damaging the pristine river and leaving dangerous and deep holes. Opponents also raised questions about conflicting state laws regarding reclamation and other issues. Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden asked the board to hold off on the vote last month so he could visit the site and look further into the issue, which he did.

"This river is a unique and important river to the people of this state," Wasden said. He said those who protested the lease raised "a serious overarching policy question ... whether recreational dredge mining or dredge mining at all is appropriate for this stretch of river. But that question was answered already by the state Legislature, by the Department of Water Resources and by the Department of Lands in the adoption of a series of statutes and rules. So that question has been answered under the law, at least for today. This stretch of river is open to recreational dredge mining." He added, "The broader question is a question for another day and another forum."

The lease, Wasden said, would actually limit such activity by giving the lessee, Mike Conkin, exclusive rights to minerals on a half-mile stretch of the river. That would limit the number of people dredging there, Wasden said, and he said he thought that was appropriate. "This is a pristine and beautiful river," he said. The attorney general said the state should look into clarifying the rules and statutes to address concerns brought up by opponents. "It seems to me that that is an appropriate discussion in which we should engage," Wasden said.

Jonathan Oppenheimer of the ICL said after the vote that he was disappointed that the Land Board didn't move to protect the river; he said the EPA is likely to step in under federal clean water laws, if the state doesn't take action. Reporter Aaron Kunz of EarthFix has a deeper look at the issue here; it's one that divides the community of Riggins, where gold-mining enthusiasts and fishing and floating outfitters have competing interests.

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Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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