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Thu., June 20, 2013, midnight

Editorial: Old law protects Clearwater’s North Fork

A federal administrative law judge has ruled that the recreational and cultural uses of the North Fork of the Clearwater River are a former dam site more valuable than the gold placer miners might have dredged from the bottom.

What irony. And what a relief.

The great dams that block flows on the Northwest’s largest rivers are lamented by many who regret the damage done to wild fish runs, and the loss of land and communities submerged beneath reservoirs. Other watersheds, such as the Coeur d’Alene River basin, were despoiled by mining.

But thanks to an obscure law that surrendered the rights to future federal hydroelectric dam development, those basins where the water still flowed freely were granted special protections.

The Mining Claims Rights Restoration Act of 1955 says placer miners must prove that working their claims will not interfere with other river uses, and that the value of any gold or other minerals recovered will exceed the value of other uses.

Historically, there was little placer activity in the river above Dworshak Dam, where the placer claims were staked. There is no documented production, and little evidence of prospecting. A U.S. Forest Service geologist panned for gold in nine locations and found nothing. The claim holders, including several from as far away as Mississippi who bought their stake on eBay, had done no exploration themselves.

That did not stop someone from posting signs along the river telling recreational users to stay out. Outrageous!

The law put a heavy burden on the Forest Service to make its case based on a preponderance of proof. It turned out to be a gimme. During a three-day hearing in January, the claimants unsuccessfully challenged government conclusions on the economic and cultural impacts of mining. Their one witness discussed his “heartfelt” desire to mine.

If this individual put only one small, raft-like dredge in the river, the impact would be minimal. Put 20 in that 30-mile stretch of the North Fork, and you have a mess. Dredges suck sediment off the bottom, extract the gold, and dump everything else into the water. Many a stream in the West still bears the scars.

And, as Judge Robert Holt noted, once the claims were granted, the government would be powerless to interfere if more destructive mining were undertaken, unlikely as that might be.

Most Idaho rivers are not open to placer mining. They have been a treasure to residents for millennia, and their worth as environmental and economic assets today and for the future far exceeds the one-time assay of whatever gold they contain.

The North Fork – Power Site Withdrawal No. 166 – was saved by a 1955 law that went a long way toward striking the right balance between the very real economic benefits of mining, and the less quantifiable environmental costs. All these decades later, and Congress has yet to apply that nugget of insight to reform of the country’s outdated mining laws.

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