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We have the chance to protect the Chetco River by ending in-stream mining

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We all love second chances when they come along, and few have been bigger than the one handed to Oregon's Chetco River. Over the years, in-stream gold mining has posed the biggest threat to water quality and salmon spawning in the river. Despite the Chetco's protection under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, anyone could claim a piece of the river and even national forestland under the General Mining Act of 1872, and that is exactly what happened. 

The Oregon Coast in and near Brookings, Oregon. Redwood forest trail up the north bank of the Chetco River, in and near Redwood State Park.

Several attempts have been made to increase protection for the river, but at best, success has been fleeting. Temporary withdrawals or proposals were made, but nothing permanent was ever accomplished.

In 2011, the U.S. Forest Service asked the secretary of the interior to temporarily withdraw about 17 miles of the river from mineral entry. The idea was to prevent any new claims and once again give Congress time to consider permanent protection, something only it can do. Rep. Peter DeFazio stepped up and delivered House Resolution 1415, the Chetco River Protection Act, and Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley have followed with Senate Bill 764. If passed into law, the bills would improve wild and scenic protection and finally would make permanent the mineral withdrawal on national forestlands.

The second chance came last month when a Washington developer failed to pay annual fees on 11 existing claims on the Chetco and forfeited them. Three of these claims were inside the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area and cannot be reclaimed, but it will be open season on the remainder once the temporary withdrawal expires in about a year and a half. If the Chetco River Protection Act becomes law, however, these claims never can be refiled and the river will be protected forever from in-stream mining. 


What does the public make of all this? According to the Department of the Interior, more than 11,800 comments were received in support of the Forest Service's request for a halt to new claims. Six comments were received in opposition. At a public meeting in Brookings, 90 percent of those in attendance supported increased protection. 


The deputy chief of the Forest Service testified in support of the Chetco River Protection Act and pointed out that in addition to strong runs of fall chinook, winter steelhead and sea-run cutthroat trout, the river "contributes exceptionally pure and clean water to the domestic water supplies of the communities of Brookings and Harbor, Oregon." Fish, water and recreation: That is a pretty strong set of values for Oregonians. 


Not only is increased protection the right thing to do for salmon and other natural values of the river, but the price is bargain-basement. If Congress acts to pass the legislation, the Forest Service would save at least $810,000, which was the estimated cost to review the eight mining claims that have now been abandoned. 


During our careers of managing contentious public-lands issues across the United States, we often were confronted with situations in which it was very difficult to balance environmental protection with the economic interests and wishes of local communities. But that is clearly not the case on the Chetco, where objective consideration of both environmental and economic factors strongly supports permanent protection from mining, and the local communities that would be most affected overwhelmingly support such protection. 


Second chances are wonderful, but this one has a time limit. The Chetco River Protection Act should be passed sooner rather than later. 

Jack Williams is former forest supervisor of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest and is now senior scientist for Trout Unlimited. Mike Dombeck is former chief of the Forest Service and now a board member for Trout Unlimited.

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