Outdoors blog

North Fork Clearwater River mining challenged

A cutthroat trout from Kelly Creek in the Clearwater National Forest of Idaho. (Rich Landers)
A cutthroat trout from Kelly Creek in the Clearwater National Forest of Idaho. (Rich Landers)

FISHING -- Idaho fly fishers and conservation groups are stepping up to back the Clearwater National Forest in challenging the rash of placer mining claims being filed for the North Fork of the Clearwater River.

A stream known for its native bull trout and westslope cutthroats is being seen as a honey-hole for miners with suction dredges.  At least 36 mining claims have been filed along a 30-mile stretch of the river.

Tell that to your egg-sucking leech.

Kudos to the Kelly Creek Fly Casters and the Friends of the Clearwater for joining the cause. The Forest Service will need all the help it can get.  

A relatively small number of miners have legal rights to dredge for gold -- and screw with the attraction for thousands of recreationists -- based on the Mining Rights Restoration Act of 1955 and the archaic Mining Act of 1872.

But at least the laws give the Forest Service the ability ask for a hearing before the Interior Board of Land Appeals to determine if placer mining will interfere with other uses.

If you were on the North Fork last summer and saw the "keep away from private property" signs along riverside claims, you got just a surface hint of what could come.

By Eric Barker, of the Lewiston Tribune

The U.S. Forest Service will challenge dozens of placer mining claims filed over the past year on the North Fork Clearwater River.

Kathy Rodriguez, ranger of the North Fork District of the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest, said suction dredge mining is incompatible with a number of other uses of the river and she will ask an administrative law judge from the U.S. Department of Interior to prohibit mining there.

But miners say they followed federal laws and regulations when they filed their claims and the government is now trying to take their private property without compensation. Hearings on the matter are scheduled for Tuesday through next Friday in Orofino.

The North Fork is a blue ribbon trout stream that is popular with campers and home to threatened bull trout and abundant cutthroat trout.

During the summer it attracts scores of anglers, campers and swimmers.

Last year a flurry of mining claims, some as large as 160 acres, were filed on a 30-mile stretch of the river between Aquarius Bridge and Weitas Creek. Many of them have since been subdivided and sold on Internet auction sites like eBay.

Signs warning people not to interfere with private property or mining were posted at some of the more popular camping spots along the river, alarming forest visitors and forest managers.

Fishing groups like the Lewiston-based Kelly Creek Flycasters and Moscow-based Clearwater Flycasters have expressed their concerns to the agency.

“Across the board, all the members (of the Kelly Creek Flycasters) are quite concerned about losing fisheries and access to fisheries and I think that is our interest,” said Dale Mickelsen of Lewiston, who serves as president of the fishing group. “You can go to some states and you can’t even get to the water because it has somehow become private property. This is not the Idaho way of doing things.”

A report prepared by forest minerals specialist Clint Hughes stating the case against mining says there is “little or no possibility” the claims will prove economically viable; mining may cause the North Fork to lose its suitability for Wild and Scenic River designation; and active claims would increase competition for camping spots and reduce the quality of visitor experience. It also contemplates that some or all of the claims could see more intense forms of industrial mining, which would dramatically increase the effects noted to visitors and the environment.

“We conclude that normal, regulated placer mining operations would substantially interfere with other uses in the area, particularly the substantial use of the river and its camping areas for fishing and other recreational activities,” according to the report.

Clark Callear of Orofino joined with members of his family to file many of the claims and has since sold some on the Internet. He compares the effect of miners using small-scale suction dredges to that of anglers and complains the Forest Service offered no objection to the claims during a mandated 60-day waiting period imposed by the Mining Rights Restoration Act.

He wants to be allowed to mine but also offered to settle with the government for about $177 per acre, or roughly $62,000. He believes it is likely the government is spending far more than that to protest the claims.

“If they are going to take our property, they are going to need to pay for it,” he said. “Private property shall not be taken without just compensation. Our mineral rights are exactly that — private property.”

The North Fork of the Clearwater was identified as a possible site for hydropower development and withdrawn from mining exploration in 1927.

But the Mining Rights Restoration Act of 1955 allowed people to once again stake claims and actively pursue ore provided the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission or the relevant land management agency raises no objections. However, the law is not as liberal as the Mining Act of 1872, and gives agencies like the Forest Service the ability ask for a hearing before the Interior Board of Land Appeals to determine if placer mining will interfere with other uses.

Hughes said the Forest Service didn’t ask for the hearing when just a few claims were filed. But as the number increased and they began to be subdivided and offered for sale, the agency became increasingly concerned and decided to step in.

“There wasn’t much of a problem when there were only a couple of claims, but when it ballooned this summer to 36, along with the claim signs that popped up, it kind of forced our hand and we decided to ask for a public hearing,” Hughes said.

He said plans of operation must be submitted and approved before people can work the claims.

The hearings will be overseen by an administrative law judge, but they are not official court proceedings. The judge can prohibit mining, allow it on condition that the site be restored following mining, or allow mining without conditions. Those unhappy with decisions made by the hearing officer may appeal to federal court.

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Rich Landers
Rich Landers writes and photographs stories for a wide range of outdoors coverage, including a Sunday feature section and a Thursday column. He also writes the Outdoors Blog.

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