The Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests on Dec. 18 announced a plan to regulate suction dredging operations and to approve as many as 35 suction dredging operations per year, of which 20 would be allowed in creeks east and northeast of Pierce.
The plan would allow 15 operations per year in a stretch of the South Fork Clearwater River, starting 1.5 miles upstream of Harpster and ending about two miles below Elk City. Along that stretch there are 37 unpatented mining claims, according to the Dec. 18 environmental assessment (EA). According to the EA, suction dredgers do not necessarily require mining claims to practice their trade, as the Mining Law of 1872 allows people to prospect and explore for mineral resources – but the EA insists laws passed since then require suction dredgers and other miners to comply with federal rules in addition to state rules. These rules include the Idaho Department of Water Resources (IDWR) “letter permit,” which has long established suction dredging season dates, and the 2013 Environmental Protection Agency general suction dredging permit. According to the EA, the EPA general permit established a limit of 15 operations on the South Fork Clearwater River, but in practice, it has functioned as a ban, which miners have defied by dredging in that river each summer since.
Public comment period open
A 30-day public comment period opened with the publication of the Dec. 18 legal notice. Comments can be mailed to Forest Supervisor Cheryl Probert at the Kamiah office, can be called in to 935-2513, can be faxed to 935-4275, or e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org; include “Comment on Small-Scale Suction Dredging Project” in the subject line. Comments can be hand-delivered 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, except on federal holidays.
Under the EA, announced Dec. 18 in the Lewiston Tribune, miners “plans of operations” would be approved, but miners “would be limited to operating during the respective IDWR ‘letter permit’ dredging seasons, would be limited to 300 linear stream feet of dredging distance in any one season, and…would be spaced a minimum of 800 linear stream feet apart. Specific areas within approved dredging reaches would be off-limits…including some types of primary habitat for [endangered and sensitive] species.”
The EA notes that reasonable mining plans “must be approved” under Forest Service regulations, but in addition to restricting plans in their specifics, the Forest Service would intensely monitor suction dredging operations. The Forest Service would line out operation areas, photograph and sketch operations, visit dredging sites during the dredging season, and visit each suction dredging site within one month of the end of the end of the season. The Forest Service would also take before-and-after photos to “document any substantial changes in stream channel and riparian conditions…in particular, project area modifications which are likely to persist into the next steelhead spawning season or spring/summer chinook spawning season.”
In addition to federal and state agencies, the proposed monitoring would be reported to the general public.
In recent years and in forums ranging from the state capitol to the South Fork Clearwater River itself, suction dredgers have publicly argued that suction dredging does not harm rivers or the fish within them. The EA affirms that allowing regulated suction dredging would have no impact on the total amount of sediment in the South Fork Clearwater River – and would have only slight consequences for fish and wildlife, which would be further limited by the shortness of the open season and the smallness of the open area.