Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Protecting the Chetco

In order to provide the best possible protection for the National Wild and Scenic Chetco River, the Oregon Congressional Delegation recently introduced the Chetco River Protection Act.  It's  based on Forest Service recommendations.  But legislation takes time to pass in a busy Congress.  In the interim the Obama Administration has been asked to withdraw approximately 19 miles of the Wild and Scenic Chetco River (on National Forest land) from operation of the Mining Law in order to give Congress the time it needs to act.
The 1872 Mining Law - Under the 1872 Mining Law (Mining Law), all valuable mineral deposits in lands belonging to the United States are open to exploration, occupation and purchase under regulations prescribed by law. Hard to believe in this day and age.  But the Mining Law even applies to National Wild and Scenic Rivers like the Chetco, unless they are classified as “Wild” and withdrawn from operation of the Mining Law—aka, withdrawn from mineral entry or mineral withdrawal.

Mineral Withdrawal - Withdrawal of National Forest and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands from the Mining Law is the simplest available mechanism for protecting non-mineral values where there’s a threat of hardrock mining. The 25.5 mile segment of the National Wild and Scenic Chetco River, which is classified as “Wild” and within the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, is withdrawn from mineral entry. However, the 19 mile segment outside the Wilderness, which is classified as “Scenic” and “Recreation,” remains open to mineral entry and mining.  After an area is withdrawn from the Mining Law, mining can only occur on existing claims that are valid and that meet all requirements of the law.   Those claims that are found "not valid" are declared null and void and no new mining claims can be located in the withdrawn area.

Failure to Act - Under recommendations the Siskiyou National Forest made in its National Wild and Scenic Chetco River Management Plan in 1993, 9.5 miles of the Scenic segment should have been withdrawn from the Mining Law years ago. But the agency sat on its recommendation to Congress to upgrade the protective classifications on 3.5 miles of the river for 15 years and failed to act on its recommendation to withdraw the “Scenic” segment, saying there was no need because the area had “low mineral potential and a low probability of the claims being developed.”  Ironically, this would have been the time to withdraw the river.

How to Withdraw Federal Lands - Mineral withdrawal can be accomplished by Congress, through legislation, and administratively by the Secretary of Interior, through authority granted by Congress in the Federal Land and Management Policy Act (FLPMA) of 1976. However, the Secretary can make such withdrawals only with consent of the head of the department or agency concerned.  In the Chetco River's case, the head of the department is Secretary Vilsack.

Best Possible Protection for the Chetco - On June 15th, Representatives Peter DeFazio, David Wu and Earl Blumenaur introduced the Chetco River Protection Act.  Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley introduced companion legislation in the Senate. The legislation acts on the Forest Service’s 1993 recommendations to Congress and also withdraws the “Scenic” and “Recreation” segments of the river from the Mining Law. Failing a major re-write of the 1872 Mining Law by Congress (it’s been 138 years) this—with an interim withdrawal from the Obama Administration to give Congress time to pass the legislation—is the best possible protection for the Chetco in the face of the threat to mine almost half its length.

Interim Protection Is Needed from the Obama Administration - In November 2009 Representative DeFazio, Senator Wyden and Senator Merkley asked the Secretary of Interior, Ken Salazar, and Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack,  to immediately withdraw the Chetco River, Rough and Ready Creek and the South Kalmiopsis (Baldface Creek) from operation of the Mining Law.  The purpose of the requested withdrawal is to provide interim protection for the three areas and give Congress time to act.

One would think that the Secretaries would be happy to assist Congress in this, especially since the Oregon delegation is simply acting on the Forest Service’s recommendations and providing additional protection for the Wild and Scenic Chetco River in the face of the new mining threat. However, the delegation had to write to the Secretaries again on April 21, 2010 and renew their plea for immediate withdrawal.  It's now a now a race against time, with the instream mining period on the Chetco beginning on July 15th.

Please help.  Go to Save Our Chetco's "what you can do" page and send an email to Secretary Salazar and Secretary Vilsack and then send a thank you email to Oregon's Congressional Delegation.   Links and suggested text is provided.