BOISE, Idaho (CN) – The U.S. Forest Service approved an intrusive “fishing expedition” for minerals in Idaho’s most treasured wilderness in direct violation of a federal judge’s order, environmentalists claim in Federal Court.
Lead plaintiff Idaho Conservation League said in a compliant filed Tuesday that a federal judge granted Independence Mines & Minerals Co. only “limited” access to two “pre-existing” mining claims within the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.
The plaintiffs say the company is instead ramping up for a massive exploratory operation that puts wildlife, habitat and pristine beauty and solitude of Idaho’s rugged core at risk.
The Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness comprises over 2.3 million acres of wild terrain including the Salmon River and Clearwater Mountain ranges, and the Bighorn Crags where everything from mountain lions and moose to Grizzly bear and wolves call home.
The wilderness was dubbed the “River of No Return” during the 1800’s for the difficulty involved in navigating down the Main Salmon River, and precluded any boat from returning up through its fast water and many rapids.
The “Frank Church” designation was added in 1984 in honor of former Idaho Senator Frank Church who lost the Democratic nomination in the 1976 presidential election to Jimmy Carter.
Church worked diligently to help preserve a wilderness area that includes the Salmon River Canyon, which is deeper than the famous Grand Canyon of the Colorado River in Arizona, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Environmentalists say the effort to protect the wilderness area is at risk because the U.S. Forest Service has approved mining operations that far exceed what was granted by U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill in 2002’s American Independence Mines & Minerals Co. v. U.S. Department of Agriculture.
That lawsuit sought to obtain access to two pre-existing mining claims at the “Golden Hand” mine site, but Winmill’s order restricted the company to “limited mineral confirmation activities.”
“As approved, the Forest Service would allow extensive drilling, bulldozing, road construction, motor vehicle traffic and use of heavy motorized mining equipment by the claimant far beyond the more limited activities that AIMMCO (American Independence and Mineral Mining Company) previously proposed to prove the validity of its Golden Hand lode mining claims 1 and 2,” the environmentalists say in the complaint.
In AIMMCO v. USDA, Winmill held that the Forest Service was obligated to allow the company access to the claims because they “pre-dated the date that mineral entry was withdrawn from the Frank Church Wilderness, and because AIMMCO claimed it needed further information to prove its mineral interest on each claim,” according to a 45-page complaint.
Instead of limiting activities, Idaho Conservation says the mining company’s new exploratory plan is “more intrusive, significantly expands the amount of surface disturbing activities in the Frank Church Wilderness, and is not limited to confirming mineral deposits located in claims 1 and 2 that AIMMCO had already exposed by the end of 1983. Nevertheless, federal defendants approved the project without even acknowledging the limitations imposed by Judge Winmill,” the complaint says.
The Forest Service approved the plan through a June 2015 record of decision and accompanying environmental impact statement which the plaintiffs say allow American Independence an “expanded fishing expedition to search for minerals more than 30 years after the deadline for discovering valuable deposits,” according to the complaint.
Under the Wilderness Act, mining claimants cannot search for new mineral deposits. They can only “confirm and corroborate preexisting exposures of a valuable mineral deposit,” wrote Winmill in his 2002 order.
The Idaho Conservation League, the Wilderness Society, Earthworks, Friends of the Clearwater and Wilderness Watch sued the Forest Service and Payette National Forest Supervisor Keith Lannom for allowing the approved mining operations to exceed Judge Winmill’s order in AIMMCO v. USDA. The plaintiffs also allege violations of the Wilderness Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Forest Management Act and the Forest Service Organic Administration Act, as well as the Forest Plan for the national forest and the Wilderness Management Plan for the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.
“Because the Forest Service’s approval of the Golden Hand project is thus arbitrary, capricious and contrary to law, plaintiffs request that this court set aside and vacate, reverse and remand the ROD and EIS issued by the Forest Service; [and] enjoin the Forest Service’s approval of the Golden Hand project,” the complaint states.
After-hours calls to plaintiffs’ attorneys’ Bryon Hurlbutt and Laurence Lucas of the Boise-based Advocates for the West were not immediately returned.
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