Forest Service Moves Forward with Mining Ban in Oregon’s Chetco Watershed
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A year ago, as conservationists cheered from coast to coast, the Obama administration ordered a ban on new mining claims on national forest and other public land around the Grand Canyon. Now, action is being taken to protect another of the 10 landscapes named by Pew as threatened by mining: the Siskiyou Wild Rivers in Oregon.
On January 25, the U.S. Forest Service called for a five-year extension of a temporary mining claims ban on more than 5,000 acres of the Chetco Wild and Scenic River, part of the Siskiyou Wild Rivers complex and some of the most sensitive, diverse habitat on the Pacific Coast. Prized by fishing enthusiasts and river rafters, the area has also been targeted by suction-dredge gold mining operators, an activity that harms the gravel beds where salmon and steelhead lay their eggs. Citing Pew’s research, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced legislation in the 112th Congress to permanently protect the Chetco from new mining claims, and Congress may see similar legislation this session.
The trouble for some of America’s most treasured national parks and other public lands, Pew’s 10 Treasures at Stake report notes, comes from combining the new mining boom with a very old law. While the Chetco and Grand Canyon have a reprieve, many other national parks and treasured landscapes remain at risk from the 1872 Mining Law, which gives mining companies “free and open access” to nearly 350 million acres of public land, including areas surrounding national parks and monuments. Goldand other hardrock mine operators release more contaminants each year than any other industrial sector, by a wide margin. Industry data indicate that in 2011, mining was responsible for 46 percent of all U.S. toxic releases. American taxpayers shoulder much of the cost to clean up this pollution, and receive no royalties for metals mined on federal land, even though oil, gas, and coal companies have paid royalties for decades. The Congressional Research Service estimates that in 2010 alone, more than $2.4 billion in gold and other precious metals was taken without taxpayer compensation.
As new claimstaking continues near treasured American lands, places like Yosemite, Joshua Tree, Arches, and Canyonlands National Parks remain at risk. Unfortunately, congressional attempts to modernize the 1872 mining law have so far been unsuccessful. Until this antiquated statute is brought up to date, bans issued by the administration, like those at Grand Canyon and the Chetco River, will be one of the few available routes to protecting these special places from mining.