A homegrown movement to protect the clear waters and wild rivers of Oregon's Kalmiopsis & Wild Rivers Coast

Wild and Scenic Smith River’s pure water worth more than a nickel mine

In a recent guest opinion in the Sacramento Bee, noted river author Tim Palmer, reminds us that the National Wild and Scenic Smith River’s pure water is worth more than a nickel mine. He calls on Oregon legislators to finish the job California began in the 1980s—asking them to permanently protect the river’s headwaters in Oregon and close the pristine National Forest land to mining.

Baldface Creek and Diamond Creek, two major tributaries of the National Wild and Scenic North Fork Smith River, are threatened by a foreign owned mining company’s intent to develop a nickel strip mine in their watersheds. Read Tim’s guest opinion, Water in redwood country is worth more than a nickel in the Sacramento Bee..

Even during periods of heavy precipitation the waters of the North Fork Smith area clear. J.R. Weir/Sundance Kayak School.
The North Fork Smith River’s watershed is near-pristine. Even during big storms, its waters remain clear. This is no place for a metal mine, the most polluting industry in the U.S.  Photo – J.R. Weir/Sundance Kayak School.

It was the threat of California Nickel Corporation’s Gasquet Mountain Mine that drove the establishment of California’s Smith River National Recreation Area in 1990.

Congress’ wisdom in protecting the National Wild and Scenic Smith River has become more evident with time. As Tim Palmer writes:

Far up on our North Coast, the Smith River flows as an incomparable gem of California, breathtakingly beautiful as it courses crystalline through the heart of redwood country. The Smith is the state’s only major river lacking both storage and smaller diversion dams. It’s also our finest stronghold of Chinook salmon – vital to commercial fisheries at sea and also to a vibrant sportfishing industry.

In the 1980s Oregon legislators weren’t interested in protecting the part of Smith River’s watershed in the extreme southwest corner of their state. As a result some of the most productive salmon and steelhead habitat in the Smith River’s watershed, Baldface Creek, is unprotected and open to mining under the antiquated 1872 Mining Law.

However, Senator Ron Wyden, Senator Jeff Merkley and Representative Peter DeFazio now want to change that. They have repeatedly called on the Obama Administration to close the watersheds of Baldface Creek and Rough and Ready Creek to mining. They say they need the help of the Administration to give them time to consider the Forest Service’s recommendations for future protection for these two nationally outstanding but unprotected Oregon rivers. Click here to read their 2010 letter to the Obama Administration.

Kayaker J.R. Weir's one-of-a-kind photo of Dan Menten on Baldface Creek during their epic run of the creek and the North Fork Smith River this February.
J.R. Weir’s one-of-a-kind photograph of Dan Menten on Baldface Creek. The photo was taken during the two kayakers epic run of the creek and the North Fork Smith River during a storm this February..

In the early 1990s, two Forest Service employees conducted the first stream survey of the little known Baldface Creek. It was then the Forest Service began to fully appreciate the value of this wild creek and its (unprotected) wilderness watershed.

Agency scientists were so impressed with Baldface Creek’s pristine nature and complex aquatic habitat that the Forest Service deemed Baldface Creek and all its perennial tributaries as “eligible” to become Wild and Scenic Rivers. Then 2004, the Bush Administration proposed that Congress add the creek’s watershed to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. The recommended South Kalmiopsis Wilderness Addition includes much of the adjacent Rough and Ready Creek watershed, but only a part of the 105,000 acre South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area.

Despite the Forest Service’s acknowledgement of the high conservation values of this pristine National Forest land, and the home state Senators and Representative’s repeated requests for their help, the Obama Administration’s inaction has given mining companies the lead in the race for these Oregon treasures.

The Cleopatra Project mining claim group covers a larger area than this map shows.
The above map shows the area of Red Flat Nickel Corporation’s Cleopatra Project in the South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area. The claim area area is a little larger than this map shows.

A proposal for the second phase of mine development in the Baldface Creek/North Fork Smith River Watershed has been submitted to the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. The agency has begun formal analysis of the Cleopatra Mining Plan of Operations. The company that wants to mine the area’s ancient nickel laterite soils is Red Flat Nickel Corporation (RFNC). RFNC is principally owned by St. Peter Port Capital. The parent company is located on Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of Great Britain.

Hunter Creek is a native salmon and steelhead stronghold that flows directly into the Pacific Ocean near Gold Beach, Oregon.
Hunter Creek is a native salmon and steelhead stronghold that flows directly into the Pacific Ocean near Gold Beach, Oregon. Watch Native Fish Society’s video about Hunter Creek.

RFNC also wants to develop a nickel laterite mine at Red Flat in the headwaters of Hunter Creek and the Pistol River. Here’s what Dave Lacey, the Native Fish Society’s Hunter Creek River Steward, and a resident of the area, wrote in the Curry Coastal Pilot:

The foreign owned corporation that is proposing the Red Flat Nickel mining would negatively impact my family and many others.  Most of the people in Hunter Creek and Pistol River really don’t want this at the headwaters of their watersheds. The same was true over by the Nickel Mountain mining in Riddle, Oregon. Many of the adjacent citizens became seriously ill from the pollution generated by the mining. They settled out of court and cannot tell their story due to the gag order forced upon them so they could receive their compensation to treat the cancers.

Click here to read Dave’s full letter to the editor. To learn more about the status of Red Flat Nickel Corporation’s proposals go to the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest webpage for the Cleopatra Project and the Red Flat Project (RF38).

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