Laura Jo Welter, The Triplicate

Hundreds attend public hearing on proposed five-year ban

The prospect of a strip mining operation polluting local streams had hundreds of Del Norte and Curry County residents united in support of a proposed federal mineral withdrawal that would exempt their prized watersheds from 19th Century mining laws.

Property and business owners, school teachers, conservationists, scientists and elected officials made up the group of some 300 people attending a public hearing Wednesday in Gold Beach, Oregon. More than 40 of these voiced their opposition to any large-scale mining upstream of their communities and where they draw their drinking water.

"As a resident of Del Norte County, when an issue pulls us together, that's unique. As has been said: we have so much to lose," said Grant Werschkull, executive director of the Smith River Alliance.

Crescent City Council Member Kathryn Murray reiterated the city's opposition to any project with the potential to pollute the city and county's largest source of drinking water, the Smith River.

Another woman said the mining industry is a known polluter, citing Environmental Protection Agency statistics listing metal mining as responsible for 47 percent of the total chemicals disposed of in the U.S. and registered in the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory Program.

Among their concerns, members of the public listed wanting to protect some of the few remaining strongholds for federally threatened and endangered species such as coho salmon, and an economic reliance on pristine rivers and healthy fisheries, for tourist-friendly businesses - fishing guide services and boating outfitters.

"They (tourists) all come here because we've got one of the cleanest rivers on the planet, and I have to keep it that way," said Brad Camden of Smith River, who runs a whitewater boating shuttle out of Gasquet.

Many urged the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service to take stronger action than the proposed five-year prohibition on new mining claims within the drainages of Rough and Ready Creek, Baldface Creek, Hunter Creek and Pistol River, all in Southern Oregon. Having little faith that Congress will be able to pass permanent legislation in that space of time, they urged the agencies and the Secretary of the Interior to withdraw the 95,806 acres of National Forest and 5,216 acres of BLM land for the maximum 20 years.

Five years gives Congress three sessions to act, BLM's Jacob Childers said. The hope in positing a shorter withdrawal period is to spur legislators to get on with passing a law that would promote the preservation of clean waters running through southern Oregon and Northern California. Then, Childers said, "they couldn't wait 20 years to act."

Introduced in February 2015, the Southwestern Oregon Watershed and Salmon Protection Act - being carried by Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio and U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman for Northern California - is the permanent protection withdrawal proponents are waiting for.

For this reason, Childers noted after the meeting, residents should be sure to voice their support or opposition to their congressional representatives and not just to the land management agencies.

"We're hopeful that Congress will see the need to protect this sensitive region and will continue to do everything we can to see it passed through Congress," Huffman's office said Friday.

The land management agencies' proposed five-year mineral withdrawal is being pursued "in aid" of the pending federal legislation.

A two-year segregation period is currently underway, prohibiting any new mining claims to made, to maintain the "status quo" while they take public comment and complete analyses required by the National Environmental Protection Act.

The process of withdrawing 100,000 acres of Curry and Josephine counties from the purview of public land laws was initiated after Red Flat Nickel Corporation proposed exploratory drilling in the region - a plan opposed by much of the coastal public.

Representatives of the foreign-owned Red Flat Nickel Corp., based in Portland, could not be reached this week for comment.

A little further from the coast, some opposition has been seen from local mining groups.

While existing, valid claims will not be subject to the mineral withdrawal, once enacted, it is a complicated, difficult process to transfer a claim to another party, a Forest Service official said.

At a public hearing Thursday in Grants Pass on the same issue, Ron Gibson, chairman of the Jefferson Mining District, approached the microphone, acknowledging he realized he was a minority in the room.

Gibson waved a document he said shows the process taken by the Forest Service and BLM to implement the mineral withdrawal is "without lawful merit." He called the implementation of a withdrawal a secondary issue, alleging federal agencies did not do what Gibson considered required by law for the withdrawal.

Gibson also admonished the mining opposition in the room for not acknowledging mined materials are necessary for modern life.

"If we are going to criticize an industry that provides that for us, it's a little hypocritical to use all the products that the industry provides," Gibson said.

A handful of other speakers voiced support for the mining projects, but like Gold Beach, the majority of public comments in Grants Pass favored the mineral withdrawal.

In August, the Waldo and Garice mining districts sought to enlist the support of the Josephine County Commissioners in a lawsuit against the federal land managers in August, a Grants Pass radio station reported.

On his way out the door to the public hearing Thursday, Chairman Keith Heck wrote in an email the board had not yet determined its stance on the issue.

"When we do, I trust that it will be in the best interest of the citizens of Josephine County and that any other party potentially impacted will also understand those concerns," Heck said.

An Aug. 17 resolution passed by Josephine County Commissioners stated opposition "to any additional portion of the Rogue River into the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System."

The restrictive nature of the Wild and Scenic River Act "will have a harmful effect on the culture and traditions of Josephine County," where 85.9 percent of the Rogue River corridor is privately owned, the resolution reads.

The Rough and Ready Creek, being considered for mineral withdrawal, flows into the Illinois River, a major tributary of the Rogue.

All four watersheds to be set aside flow into Wild and Scenic Rivers, Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest Supervisor Rob MacWhorter noted, including portions of the Chetco, Illinois and Rogue Rivers.

North of the Oregon-California border, Baldface Creek flows into the North Fork Smith River, the majority of which is exempt from the 1872 Mining Law, as is the all of Smith River running through public lands south of the border.

"They're actually four very important watersheds," MacWhorter said. "All of them have natural resource value that are very unique, and you will not find them any other place in the Cascades or coastal range, because they only occur within the Klamath-Siskiyou province. For example, darlingtonia is there. A number of very important threatened, endangered fish species are in those creeks and rivers."

He went on to describe the conflict that sometimes occurs when managing lands under various laws a century apart.

"The mining laws of 1800 are very important to me," MacWhorter said, in terms of guiding the Forest Service's management practices. "And in addition to those, we have the Threatened and Endangered Species Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. We have the Wilderness Act andhellip; which we need to follow. So, just because we have one, the Mining Act, doesn't mean that it trumps the other ones. We have to do all four of those or five or six various acts together, so the Mining Act does not allow anything or everything to happen."

Jim Rogers, a retired Curry County logger, elaborated on the existing paradox. He recalled a day 50 years ago: "I was cruising timber, and I saw, there's a Cat and a backhoe working in the creek, and the creek was all muddy. I thought that was strange because we have to leave a 200 foot buffer on either side of the stream."

The District Ranger later explained to him the exceptions that are often made under the 1872 Mining Act.

"This just doesn't make sense that you're going to operate on federal land and take material that's worth money - like timber" and not be held to the same restrictions and process, Rogers said.

"I'm not totally against mining," Camden said. "I have a gold pan and a metal detector andhellip; I can't use anything bigger than a hand trowel, and I can't go above the high water line. How can a foreign mining company (be allowed to) destroy something when I can't use anything more than a hand trowel? I don't mind strip mining as long as you don't use anything bigger than a gold pan."

David Moryc, director of River Protection Programs for American Rivers, pointed to the 3 million gallons of water contaminated with sulfuric acid that was recently spilled into Colorado's Animas River.

Such damages are costly to fix, and some communities never recover, several people said. They'd rather not take the risk.

"I work on wild rivers nationwide, and this is the highest concentration of healthy, free-flowing rivers in the country. There are places to do natural resource extraction and there are places that aren't. This is probably one of the worst places you could pick to do this kind of mining, especially because (of) the importance of these watersheds for clean water, salmon fishing and recreation," Moryc said.

Despite the optimism Huffman's office expressed about being able to pass permanent withdrawal legislation, his staff said they are not holding out hope that the Animas spill will specifically garner the momentum needed.

"Unfortunately, Congress probably will not take the right lessons from the Animas spill, considering that the hearing next week isn't about the dangers of mining in headwaters but instead about how to blame the EPA for cleanup," staff wrote Friday.

Triplicate Gasquet Correspondent Adam Spencer contributed to this report. Reach Laura Jo Welter at .