Possibility of nickel mining cited in group’s designation
Baldface Creek, a tributary to the North Fork Smith River that is adjacent to sites recently proposed for exploratory drilling for nickel mining, received national recognition Wednesday by landing on the top-10 list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers of 2013.
American Rivers, a leading river conservation group based in Washington, D.C., included Southern Oregon’s Baldface Creek and Rough and Ready Creek, a tributary to the Illinois River that also faces nickel mining threats, on its annual report “shining a national spotlight on nickel mining proposals that threaten a wonderland of wild rivers, clean water, rare plants, and outdoor recreation,” said an American Rivers press release.
Also on Wednesday, in response to the “Most Endangered” list, Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley renewed their call to the federal Bureau of Land Management to withdraw the creeks from mining, which the two senators have requested repeatedly since 1998.
“It doesn’t take a list to know that Baldface and Rough and Ready creeks are special places deserving of federal protection,” Wyden said in a press release. “Today’s announcement underscores the urgent need for the administration to act now and prevent mining activities from damaging critical habitat for endangered salmon and steelhead.”
The Clinton administration recommended that the creeks be withdrawn from “mineral entry,” meaning future mining claims could not be staked, in the late 1990s, according to the senators’ release.
The two creeks’ watersheds, roughly 12 miles west of O’Brien, are wedged between two other areas that have already been protected from future mining claims: the Smith River National Recreation Area (which shares a northern boundary with the Oregon/California border) and the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area.
Additionally, the creeks are in an area known as the South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area that the Bush administration recommended be added to existing wilderness area in 2004.
Members of Friends of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness said that prohibiting future mining claims through withdrawal is just an “interim measure” as it does not affect existing mining claims, but forces the claimants to prove the claim is valid and complies with the law, thus adding more oversight to mining projects.
“What they are asking the administration to do is to withdraw the area in order to provide Congress more time to add protection,” said Barbara Ullian, coordinator for the Friends of the Kalmiopsis. “Withdrawing areas from mineral entry is not a perfect solution, especially when there are existing claims, but it’s the best that we have — it’s the only way.”
Officials with the Gold Beach Ranger District of Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest, where both of the creeks are located, said that it is much too early to tell if the exploratory drilling project on Baldface Creek will even be conducted.
“We haven’t even gone out with a project initiation letter,” said Virginia Gibbons, spokeswoman for the Gold Beach Ranger District.
The Forest Service is still waiting to finalize an agreement with Red Flat Nickel Corp., which would guarantee that the company pay for the environmental analysis required before drilling in the Baldface drainage, Gibbons said. Once that agreement is complete, it would be at least two months before the Forest Service is ready to conduct a public scoping process.
“This is only for the core sampling; they have to do that first to determine whether it’s even feasible to go in and mine,” Gibbons said.
The Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest conducted a Wild and Scenic River Eligibility Study for Baldface Creek and its tributaries in 1993, and when the Forest Service completes a land management plan revision, the creek may become designated Wild and Scenic.
“(The creeks) are in that in-between place of Wild and Scenic River status, and until they have that status we have to proceed with what the current status is” including entertaining mining project interests within the law, Gibbons said. It is not uncommon for forest plan revisions to take so long — in this case more than 20 years, she said.
The eligibility study found that “The world-class fishery on the Smith River depends on the water and fish produced in the Baldface watershed.”
The Smith River, additionally, provides the majority of drinking water for Del Norte County.
Zach Collier, owner of Oregon-based Northwest Rafting Company and someone who has boated rivers worldwide, said there is something unique about Baldface and Rough and Ready creeks.
“These two creeks are not only uniquely beautiful, they also carve their path through a belt of extremely rare, exposed serpentine soil that hosts many endangered plant species,” Collier said in the American Rivers release.
The Most Endangered list includes much more high-profile threatened rivers: at the top of the list is the Colorado River, which provides drinking water for more than 36 million people from Denver to Los Angeles and is facing proposed dam and diversion projects in Colorado’s Front Range metro area, according to the press release. Also on the list is the Carolinas’ Catawba River, which serves the drinking water and power needs for more than 1.5 million people and is threatened with coal ash pollution, according to the release.
For more information on proposed projects on Baldface Creek, read “Smith watershed drilling proposed” at triplicate.com.