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

Mining companies in race with Oregon Senators

In a race that could decide whether the wild near-pristine watersheds of Rough and Ready CreekBaldface Creek and the North Fork Smith River are protected or strip mined for nickel, the mining companies appear to be winning. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and Rep. Peter DeFazio have repeatedly asked the Obama Administration to help them protect the area by withdrawing the National Forest and Bureau of Land Management lands in the two watersheds from mining and the location of new claims under the 1872 Mining Law

The Wild and Scenic North Fork Smith is one of the best one day floats in the Northwest  (Northwest Rafting Co. photo)
The Wild & Scenic North Fork Smith is protected in California. In Oregon, some of the best salmon and steelhead habitat  in the Smith River system is subject to mining. (Northwest Rafting  photo)

The Administration has not acted on the requests. In their correspondence with the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture, the Oregon congressioinal delegation members expressed concern about the impacts of nickel strip mining on this fragile botanically rich area and its wild world-class salmon and steelhead rivers—the North Fork Smith, Illinois and Chetco. Now we have a proposal to mine at Rough and Ready Creek and to conduct exploratory drilling, for the purpose of developing a ~ 2700 acres block of mining claims at Baldface Creek. The mining companies are demonstrating that Senators Wyden and Merkley and Rep. DeFazio were justified in their concerns.[1]

Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkely have asked the Obama Administration to help them protect this wild creek (Norhtwest Rafting Company photo)
Baldface Creek—Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkely and Rep. Peter Defazio have asked the Obama Administration to help them protect this pristine wild creek (Norhtwest Rafting Co. photo)

The Obama Adminstration’s inaction has given two mining companies time to strengthen their hold on these Oregon treasures. While the home state Senators’ three requests to the Administration to withdraw the areas from the antiquated Mining Law remain bogged down in tired excuses for not protecting these areas from mining, the mining companies’ proposals are moving forward. When Red Flat Nickel Corporation came to the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest with their proposals in October of 2012, the local Forest began preliminary work on the mining plans of operation. Scoping for the proposal is expected in August.

Red Flat Nickel is proposing to conduct exploratory drilling at approximately 59 sites in the South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area above Baldface Creek and the National Wild and Scenic North Fork Smith River. The company’s other proposal is for drilling an unknown number of sites at Red Flat in the headwaters of the Pistol River. The company would have ordinarily had to get in line, but to expedite the work Red Flat Nickel Corp. is paying for the Environmental Assessment and analysis, with the Forest Service doing the work.

Baldface Creek's waters are startling clear (Barbara Ullian photos)
Baldface Creek, just above where it flows into the National Wild and Scenic North Fork Smith River. The Creek’s waters are startling clear (© Barbara Ullian photos)

To be fair to the agency, their surface mining regulations required them to process mining plans of operation submitted to them. However, Congress also granted the Secretary of Interior—upon the request of a land managing agency—the authority to withdraw federal public lands from the Mining Law. So it seems the Senators’ desire to withdraw these Forest Service Eligible Wild and Scenic Rivers and their watersheds—on behalf of their constituents and all Americans—appears to have less weight with the Obama Administration than mining companies desire to mine the minerals on federal public lands for free.

Update 6/5/2-13: The latest information is that Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest staff will prepare the environmental documents, with the mining company paying for the work.  The decision maker will be the Wild Rivers District Ranger. Scoping for the mining plan in the Baldface Creek/North Fork Smith Watershed will likely begin in August. To get on the Forest Service’s mailing list for what’s known as the Cleopatra Project click here and scroll down to “Participate in the Forest Service analysis of the mining proposal at Baldface Creek.” Also ask to be on the mailing list for the Red Flat mining plan of operation.

Provisional map of Red Flat Nickel's mining claim block
Approximate location of Red Flat Nickel Corp. claims in North Fork Smith River Watershed in Oregon. In California, the North Fork  is protected from mining by the Smith River National Recreation Area Act.

According to reports run on BLM’s LR2000 data base of mining claims, Red Flat Nickel Corporation holds 239 active lode claims on Siskiyou National Forest lands in Curry County, Oregon. If all the claims are 20 acres in size, this amounts to about 4,780 acres. The claims are on what are called nickel laterites, which are simply ancient soils formed from the exposure and weathering of ultramafic rock from the basement floor of the ocean’s crust.

The soil contain heavy metals that are toxic to most plants. As a result, on this stark red, other-worldly landscape are found unique plant communities of species, which have adapted over millions of years to the harsh conditions. According to John Sawyer, Professor Emeritus of Biology at Humboldt State University, the serpentine terrain of Josephine, Curry and Del Norte counties has one of the highest percentages of rare and endemic plants in North America and its mostly found on the Siskiyou and Six Rivers National Forests.

The soils formed from ultramafic and serpentine rock are also known to contain naturally occurring asbestos, which is not a problem unless areas containing the asbestos are disturbed.  Read the USDA Forest Service’s information about the dangers of naturally occurring asbestos and about the geology and unique flora of the Klamath-Siskiyou Serpentines.

The North Fork Smith River flows through ancient serpentine terrain.
The Wild and Scenic North Fork Smith River is a world-class salmon and steelhead river with natinally outstanding water quality. It’s a favorite class of rafters and kayakers (Northwest Rafting Co. photo) 

What little is known about Red Flat Nickel’s immediate proposal at Baldface Creek is found in an Oregon Department of Water Resources public file. Click here to access the public file records. According to project description, the drilling is to occur spring/summer of 2013 pending permission from the Forest Service. The accompanying map shows 59 separate drill sites. the maps included in the project description were poor quality. We’ve attempted to overlay the claim area on a USGS map of the area (see above). The map shows the approximate locations and should be considered provisional.

Internet searches show that 80% of the ordinary shares of Red Flat Nickel Corporation plus an approximately $15 million dollar loan is owned by the foreign investment corporation, St. Peter Port Capitol Limited of Guernsey, United Kingdom.

Notes

[1] Rough and Ready Creek is a tributary of the Wild and Scenic Illinois River. Read more about the threats to Rough and Ready Creek in future posts.

 

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