This week a judge has ruled in favor of the Forest Service in their case against 35 placer mining claims located along the South Fork of the Payette River. The decision signifies a victory for the numerous local outfitters, rafters, kayakers, businesses, and conservation groups that opposed the development of mining activities along this stretch of river.
The South Fork of the Payette River winds its way through a steep, mountainous region that contains exceptional scenery and supports a diverse array of wildlife. The river itself flows along an incredible variety of falls, rapids, pools, and hot springs that provide aquatic habitat for numerous fish species, including the endangered bull trout. This unique river-scape is a world-renowned whitewater destination that also provides great camping, hiking, trail riding, and fishing opportunities to the public. 40,000 people are drawn to the South Fork Payette River and the Lowman area every year.
The mining claims were filed for in 2017 by two mining interests along a popular whitewater stretch upstream of Lowman and near Kirkham Hot Springs. Under the Mining Law of 1872, a valid mining claim cannot be prohibited by the Forest Service and is considered the highest and best use of public lands. However, this area was previously withdrawn from mining for potential hydroelectric development, meaning the Mining Claims Rights Restoration Act of 1955 is applicable. In the 1955 Act, an area such as this can be reopened to mining if it is determined that the mining in question would not substantially interfere with other existing uses along the river corridor. The Forest Service determined that the proposed placer mining would in fact substantially interfere with the existing recreational and scenic uses of this stretch of the South Fork Payette.
A hearing was held last year, in which the claimants as well as local community members testified. Kevin Lewis represented IRU in his testimony where he expounded on the recreational and scenic qualities of the river and the adverse effects placer mining would have on those qualities. 400 public comments were also considered. They were unanimously opposed to mine development.
In his ruling the judge stated that,
“The great preponderance of evidence tendered in this case – primarily by the Forest Service – shows that placer mining would substantially interfere with the dominant other uses and values of the land – whitewater recreation, camping, tourism, scenery viewing, fisheries, cultural resources, and the revenue from those activities flowing to the local economy. The evidence shows that the cost of mining the claims would far exceed any potential revenue.”
He went on to say that, “The recreational and scenic uses and values of the land within the claims and in their immediate vicinity far exceeds the negligible, if any, benefit that could be derived from placer mining on these claims.”
In the hearing local folks laid out the clear reasons why the South Fork of the Payette River is special. The judge listened to what those that depend on this river were telling him and ended his ruling by completely prohibiting placer mining on all of the claims.