Groups seek to protect Boise headwaters and imperiled plant from mine exploration

Citing harm to the rare, native plant Sacajawea’s bitterroot and uncertain impacts to water quality, three conservation groups filed their opening brief in court yesterday to stop the CuMo mineral exploration project from moving forward in the headwaters of the Boise River.

The brief was filed by public interest law firm Advocates for the West and the Western Mining Action Project on behalf of Boise-based Idaho Conservation League, Idaho Rivers United, and Golden Eagle Audubon Society.

The brief charges the U.S. Forest Service with failing to protect Sacajawea’s bitterroot and water quality when it approved the five-year mineral exploration project. As approved, mining company Idaho CuMo Corporation plans to build an extensive road network and drill up to 259 exploration holes deep underground in the Boise National Forest, including in Sacajawea’s bitterroot habitat.  The brief asks the U.S. District Court for Idaho to overturn the project approval 

“Too many mining projects have placed plants, animals, and water sources at risk from lack of foresight and planning. The Forest Service needs to do a better job,” said Golden Eagle Audubon Society Program Leader Pam Conley. 

Sacajawea’s bitterroot is designated “critically imperiled” because of its small population size and vulnerability to extinction.  The exploration site, 14 miles north of Idaho City, is home to the largest population of Sacajawea’s bitterroot in the world and is considered a stronghold for the species’ survival. 

“Sacajawea’s bitterroot is already in a perilous situation due to previous drilling and a recent wildfire at the exploration site,” said Advocates for the West attorney Bryan Hurlbutt. “The Forest Service must make sure that building roads and constructing drill pads doesn’t push this rare plant closer to extinction.”

The exploration was first approved in 2011, but has been stopped since August 2012 after the court found that the Forest Service had failed to consider and protect against water quality impacts. Water at the project site eventually flows into the Boise River.  

“The exploration site is dissected by numerous creeks and streams, some of which run by hazardous historic mining waste,” said IRU Conservation Director Kevin Lewis. “But the Forest Service signed off on exploration yet again without understanding how CuMo’s extensive underground drilling can alter water flows and cause contamination.”

“A number of problems have already arisen during this preliminary step of mine exploration at the site,” said Idaho Conservation League Public Lands Director John Robison. “Permitting a massive open pit mine , as CuMo says it hopes to do, is going to be far more complicated.”