Adam Spencer, The Triplicate

On a site that lies in the watershed of the North Fork of the Smith River, just north of the California-Oregon border and west of Highway 199, a mining company has proposed exploratory drilling for nickel.

Although future mining claims are prohibited within the Smith River National Recreation Area, the proposed site lies just outside the NRA boundaries.

In mid-February, Red Flat Nickel Corp., a Portland-based company mostly-owned by a British investment company, received a limited license from the Oregon Water Resources Department to divert up to 10 gallons per minute for mineral exploration drilling from March 31 to Nov. 1 of this year.

Dubbed the Cleopatra Site, the proposed water diversion is about 12 miles west of O'Brien near the southeastern tip of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area. The water would be diverted from an unnamed tributary of Taylor Creek, which flows into Baldface Creek, one of the primary tributaries of the North Fork of the Smith.

"The world-class fishery on the Smith River depends on the water and fish produced in the Baldface watershed," according to a 1993 U.S. Forest Service Wild and Scenic River Eligibility Study for Baldface Creek and its tributaries.

Although all of the Smith River's main forks and tributaries in California are protected under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, in Oregon, only the main stem of the North Fork of the Smith has National Wild and Scenic River protected status.

Grant Werschkull, co-executive director of local conservation group the Smith River Alliance, said that coho salmon, a listed species under the Endangered Species Act, have been documented in the streams where the exploration is planned and in Baldface Creek upstream of Taylor Creek.

"It's definitely of concern to us," Werschkull said. "We feel that it's inconsistent with the spirit and intent of the Smith River National Recreation Act, and we're definitely going to work to have that not happen."

Timothy Wallin, Water Rights Program Manager for the Oregon Water Resources Department, said that since groundwater is involvedthere was a consultation with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife before issuing the license.As a result, the company will be required to use fish screens, preventing fish from swimming into the diversion.

Two sites are proposed, both in the Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest in Curry County. The second proposed site lies in the Hunter Creek drainage in the far western side of the national forest.

John Magliana, an attorneyrepresenting Red Flat Nickel, told the Medford Mail Tribune that the exploration is an exciting project but it's not certain how far it will go.

"As anyone knows who has done business in the U.S., especially in mining, there are many hurdles to overcome before you can even think about drilling," he said.

"We are working our way through the formal processes right now," he said. "My client is very sensitive to the environment and the attitude of Oregonians."

Don Gillespie, president of the local conservation group Friends of Del Norte, was incredulous about the proposal.

"I can't believe that after all these years of protecting the water quality of the Smith River, our salmon stronghold, we now have another threat from mining. Twenty-seven years ago, the Friends of Del Norte were instrumental in stopping a firm named Cal Nickel from mining nickel ore on Gasquet Mountain."

Forest officials are studying the proposal and will conduct an environmental review paid for by the company.

"They do have a plan of operations for test drilling,"said Forest Service spokeswoman Virginia Gibbons. "They are trying to make sure it's a viable deposit before moving a lot of equipment in."

Test drilling on the Hunter Creek site would use existing roads. The Cleopatra site would require access by helicopters, she said.

Red Flat Nickel has 139 claims in the proposed Cleopatra mining area, which falls within an area proposed for an extension of wilderness, a largely roadless block known as the South Kalmiopsis.

Members of the group Friends of the Kalmiopsis said mining operation would undercut efforts to add the South Kalmiopsis roadless area, which encompasses the Baldface Creek drainage, to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.

"This is some of the best quality fishery habitat we have in Oregon," said Barbara Ullian of Grants Pass, coordinator for the Friends of the Kalmiopsis.

Mining could threaten a salmon and steelhead fishery and rare native plants, she said.

The Bush administration in July 2004 supported adding South Kalmiopsis to existing wilderness, she said.

"These lands have been noted for their outstanding wilderness characteristics for many years, and there has been long-standing public interest in providing greater protections in this area," said Ann Veneman, who was agriculture secretary at the time.

The effort failed in Congress, Ullian said, but it's not just environmental activists who want additional protections.

"This is a very unique area that needs to be protected," she said. "Its fishery and botanical values are extremely high ... They are much more valuable than the minerals."

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.