Tuesday, July 31, 2018

New bill to protect Chetco from new threat

The Chetco's renowned, crystal-clear waters
On July 28, Congressman Peter DeFazio re-introduced a stand-alone version of the Chetco River Protection Act: H.R. 6546. The bill is based on recommendations made by the U. S. Forest Service in the Chetco Wild and Scenic River Management Plan. It would provide protection this world-class salmon and steelhead river from the renewed threat of mining. 

This bill complements the Oregon Wildlands Act legislation already introduced by Senators Wyden and Merkley that includes a provision to safeguard the Chetco from mining.  Protecting the Chetco has also been included in the Southwest Oregon Watershed and Salmon Protection Act.

These bills are critically important because special protections temporarily accorded to the National Wild and Scenic Chetco River recently expired. 

Although the Chetco is renowned and beloved for its crystal-clear water, world-class fisheries and recreation that is focused on both clean water and fish, back in 2008, these qualities were threatened when a Washington real estate developer proposed to mine 20 miles of the Wild and Scenic Chetco riverbed —from claims he owned within the Kalmiopsis Wilderness all the way down to the Forest Service boundary, including at popular swimming areas. He'd planned to helicopter large dredges into the Chetco's remote canyon and then similarly drop in miners staying at Emily Camp, his private inholding, deep in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.

In response to this threat, in 2009, Rep. DeFazio introduced legislation, the Chetco River Protection Act, joined by our Senators, to provide permanent protection from mining for the river's corridor. That started an administrative process that ultimately lead to a 5-year mineral withdrawal in 2013 to protect the "status quo" and give Congress time to pass the bill. (Remarkably, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act does not protect against mining unless a river is specifically designated as "wild," which is why many of our  Wild Rivers Coast National Wild and Scenic rivers, including the Elk, Rogue, Illinois, and New rivers, need the additional protection of "mining withdrawals," which withdraw the lands from the purview of the Mining Law of 1872 and prevent staking new claims.)

However, owing to political gridlock, Congress has not been able to pass a Chetco protection bill in the past 5 years (though Congressman DeFazio and our Senators have introduced it several times).   Ordinarily, administrative mineral withdrawals such as this for the Chetco are routinely extended on request by the land managing agency to safeguard local values and give Congress time to act. The Forest Service began the process to extend the withdrawal two years ago, but the Department of the Interior, which is in charge of mining claims and withdrawals, has not done what is needed to extend the withdrawal.

Our Senators and Congressman DeFazio pressed for action, but Interior Secretary Zinke decided to let the withdrawal lapse putting the National Wild and Scenic Chetco back at risk.

Thus far, the Chetco withdrawal has very successfully protected the river from large-scale dredge mining. Due to failure to properly pay annual fees, the project proponent forfeited his claims so we went from having a major threat of instream mining to having zero mining claims on this Wild and Scenic River! This status is now in danger.

Fortunately, in the past five years, the state of Oregon has also stepped up to protect the Chetco. In 2015, Oregon designated the Chetco a State Scenic Waterway, which precludes suction dredging in the designated reach—from the Steel Bridge down to Loeb State Park. And in 2017, Oregon's legislature passed a law that prohibits suction dredge mining in Essential Fish Habitat, which covers the main stem up to the wilderness boundary and some tributaries. While these beneficial state designations will certainly help protect against suction dredge mining, it's uncertain if they will protect against other forms of mining.

And so citizens must remain vigilant, especially since the river is now recovering from the Chetco Bar Fire and post fire logging. The only way to make sure that the Wild and Scenic Chetco's river corridor is truly safe from the threat of all types of mining is for Secretary Zinke to make an "emergency withdrawal" or for Congress to act on the Oregon Wildlands Act or the Southwest Oregon Watershed and Salmon Protection Act.