Letters from the West

Federal judge blocks mining proposal in Idaho wilderness

Mike Journee of Boise fly fishing at Big Creek in the Frank Church Wilderness.
Mike Journee of Boise fly fishing at Big Creek in the Frank Church Wilderness. Idaho Statesman file

U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill invalidated a plan to use bulldozers, dump trucks and drilling rigs to mine for gold inside the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.

Winmill ruled in favor of conservation groups, saying a Forest Service decision approving American Independence Mines and Mineral’s mining plan violates the Wilderness Act, the National Forest Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. He ordered the Forest Service to consider less invasive alternatives for activities in the wilderness.

The lawsuit was filed by the Idaho Conservation League, Earthworks, The Wilderness Society, Friends of the Clearwater and Wilderness Watch.

“Wilderness areas are afforded the highest level of protection of any federal public land in our nation,” said Bryan Hurlbutt, attorney with Advocates for the West. “Even when a mining company has some rights within wilderness, its workers can walk through the wilderness like the rest of us, and any mining activities must be limited to the absolute minimum.”

The lawsuit challenged the final approval by Payette National Forest Supervisor Keith Lannom, issued in 2015, of additional mineral sampling by the company to determine if two mining claims within the Frank Church Wilderness are valid mining claims. Validating these claims is a necessary step for the mining company to proceed with any mineral development or production plans.

The mining claims are located three miles inside the wilderness area, in the headwaters of Big Creek, a tributary to the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. The Forest Service decision would have allowed miners to make 571 truck trips into and back out of the wilderness each summer during the three-year project. Miners also would have used dump trucks and bulldozers to open roads, clear drill pads and excavate trenches within the wilderness.

“Thousands of people who hike, hunt, fish and float in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness spoke out against this project,” said John Robison of the Idaho Conservation League. “The court ruled that the Forest Service has to find a better balance and work harder to protect the public’s rights and wilderness values.”

The coalition of conservation groups is represented by Hurlbutt and Roger Flynn of the Western Mining Action Project.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker