BOISE – Gov. Butch Otter and the rest of the state land board approved an exclusive mineral lease for a Grangeville man who wants to suction dredge a half-mile section of the Salmon River for gold and garnets.
The board unanimously approved a lease application Tuesday for recreational miner Mike Conklin over objections from conservationists who argue scouring up gravel and riverbed is harmful to fish habitat and water quality.
The approval comes four weeks after the board postponed a vote to buy more time to study Conklin’s plan and for some members to make a personal visit to the stretch of river Conklin wants to mine.
Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, who toured the site last month, acknowledged the aesthetic beauty of the Salmon River, but he also pointed out that state law, rules and regulations allow suction dredging to occur on the river. Wasden also said granting Conklin exclusive rights to a half-mile section could protect the river by preventing full-scale dredging by other hobbyist miners.
“The Legislature and state agencies adopted rules stating that this stretch of river is open to recreational dredge mining,” Wasden told the board. “This is a pristine and beautiful river. It’s had many uses over time, including mining.”
Conklin has been conducting small-scale exploration on the river for two years. But his new, five-year lease gives him sole access to a half-mile stretch about 13 miles downstream of Riggins. His plan calls for using gas-powered, motorized rafts and a suction hose with a five-inch intake to vacuum up gravel and sediment in his quest for gold and gems buried in the riverbed.
Conklin has an unlisted telephone number and could not be immediately reached for comment.
The board’s decision marks another disappointment for the anglers and environmentalists convinced that suction dredging an iconic waterway like the Salmon River is bad public policy.
The river below Riggins is popular for anglers fishing annual steelhead runs and floaters and rafters who converge on the river each summer and fall.
For several years, the Idaho Conservation League has sought stricter limits for Idaho’s suction dredge miners, including demanding in 2011 that the federal Environmental Protection Agency enforce federal water pollution laws that would shut down many such operations across the state.
Even though the EPA is working on new rules and a permit for suction dredgers, ICL activist Jonathan Oppenheimer said the land board blew an opportunity to put protection of Idaho’s prime rivers at the forefront of public policy.
Oppenheimer criticized what he called a loophole in state policy that doesn’t require a miner like Conklin to submit a plan to restore and reclaim dredged riverbed.
“A commercial gold mining operation in the bed of the Salmon River is not in the public’s interests,” Oppenheimer told the board.