Court Backs Agency’s View of Gold-Mining Regulation

     (CN) – The 9th Circuit upheld rulings for the Forest Service in disputes over the agency’s narrow interpretation of gold-mining regulations in the streams and rivers of Oregon’s Siskiyou National Forest.

     The forest’s waterways provide habitat for various species of threatened or endangered fish, including coho salmon and steelhead trout. Gold miners work the streams and rivers with “suction dredges,” gas-powered machines that filter gold by sucking up streambed material through an intake hose and spitting it back out into the stream bed.
     Although a popular method of gold mining in the Siskiyou National Forest, suction dredging could harm endangered fish.
     Laws passed toward the end of the 19th century allowed the Forest Service to regulate mining in national forests. In 2002, the agency granted district rangers the discretion to decide whether mining activity would significantly disturb surface resources. If so, prospective miners had to submit a more comprehensive plan of operations.
     This regulation was in force when the Forest Service adopted MM-1, a mining-related directive contained in the agency’s Northwest Forest Plan. MM-1 appeared to contradict the previous regulation by requiring a plan of operations for all mining operations in riparian reserves of the national forest.
     To overcome this apparent conflict, the Forest Service issued a memo stating that the MM-1 standard “applies only when the proposed activity is likely to cause significant surface disturbance.”
     The Forest Service then allowed miners to suction dredge in the Siskiyou National Forest without submitting an operational plan.
     The Siskiyou Regional Education Project (SREP) objected, challenging the agency’s interpretation of MM-1.
     Miners Lisa and Robert Barton and Gerald Hobbs intervened, but the district court limited their intervention to the remedial phase of litigation.
     Barton and the Waldo Mining District filed a separate action against the Forest Service, which the lower court consolidated with the SREP’s lawsuit.
     The district court granted summary judgment to the Forest Service in both cases, dismissing Barton’s claims as moot and upholding the agency’s narrow interpretation of MM-1.
     The San Francisco-based federal appeals court agreed.
     “The Forest Service’s February 2002 interpretation is a reasonable effort to address and resolve the inconsistency between the two directives,” Judge Paez wrote.
     The court also granted the motion to strike Hobbs’ answer to SREP’s amended complaint and his counterclaims.

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