Forest Service violated Wilderness Act, NFMA & NEPA in approving Wilderness mine in Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness

Here’s a bit of good news for those who value Wilderness in general, and specifically the Frank-Church River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho, the largest contiguous Wilderness area in the lower 48 states.

On Tuesday, a federal judge in Idaho issued an order declaring that the U.S. Forest Service’s approval of the Golden Hand Mine – an extensive drilling, bulldozing and road construction project within the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness – violated the Wilderness Act, the National Forest Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. Below is a press release from the coalition of groups that filed the lawsuit. – mk

Boise, ID – The U.S. District Court ruled in favor of conservationists, finding that a Forest Service decision approving a mining company’s plan to deploy bulldozers, dump trucks and drilling rigs miles inside the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness violates the Wilderness Act, the National Forest Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. The court decision invalidates the company’s mining plan and requires the Forest Service to conduct further analysis of the proposed mining exploration and evaluate 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.

The lawsuit challenged the final decision by the Payette National Forest, issued on June 22, 2015, to approve American Independence Mines and Mineral’s (AIMMCO) proposal to conduct additional mineral sampling 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 Frank Church Wilderness in the headwaters of Big Creek, a tributary to the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. The Forest Service decision, which the court invalidated, would have allowed AIMMCO to make 571 truck trips into and back out of the Wilderness each summer during the three-year project. AIMMCO would have also used dump trucks, bulldozers and drilling rigs to open roads, clear drill pads and excavate trenches within the wilderness.

“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 law requires special protections from mining operations in congressionally-designated Wilderness, and the court correctly ruled that the Forest Service failed to meet these high standards,” noted Roger Flynn, attorney with the Western Mining Action Project which represented the groups along with Advocates for the West.

“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 Frank Church Wilderness is a national treasure that deserves the utmost protection against needlessly destructive mining activities,” said Bonnie Gestring of Earthworks. “We’re pleased the court is requiring a more thorough analysis of less harmful measures.”

“The court has granted a necessary reprieve to the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness”, stated George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch. “Now it’s up to the Forest Service to show a far greater concern for the Wilderness if or when it completes the court-ordered reanalysis of this terribly destructive mining plan.”

Gary Macfarlane of Friends of the Clearwater said, “This is good news for the wild heart of Idaho. The Forest Service must do a better job in protecting the remarkable character of the this large and amazing Wilderness.”

The federal 1872 Mining Law holds precedence over public land, even though it has not been significantly revised in nearly 150 years. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, and others have introduced H.R. 963, the Hardrock Mineral Reform and Reclamation Act of 2015. The act would empower state, local and tribal governments to petition federal authorities to withdraw lands from mining to protect drinking water, wildlife habitat, cultural and historic resources, or other important values.

The coalition of conservation groups is represented by attorneys Bryan Hurlbutt of Advocates for the West and Roger Flynn of the Western Mining Action Project.

A copy of the court decision is available here.

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