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Protect pristine headwaters from nickel mining

Southern Oregon is home to some of the best salmon habitat left in the West, and recent efforts to remove fish-blocking dams from local rivers and creeks are expected to strengthen that resource. But at the same time, the quest for another resource — nickel ore — threatens to put salmon and steelhead at risk, not to mention drinking water for dozens of communities and some of the most pristine river scenery on the planet.

Mining companies, including one foreign firm, have proposed a series of industrial strip mines on or near the North Fork of the Smith River, the Illinois and Pistol rivers and Hunter Creek. Nickel is a key ingredient in stainless steel, and worldwide demand for the mineral makes new sources attractive to investors.

Extracting resources from the earth, including nickel and other metals, is a fact of modern life, and not all such extraction is a bad thing. But there are places where it should be allowed and places where it should not. Southwest Oregon wild river country is one of those places that should be left alone.

Nickel mining is one of the most environmentally destructive types of mineral extraction. The abandoned Formosa nickel mine near Riddle was declared a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2007, and cleanup operations are estimated to cost $12 million. Acidic runoff from the site has poisoned 18 miles of Middle Creek, and cleanup operations have yet to begin.

Red Flat Nickel Corp., based on the island of Guernsey, a British protectorate, wants to develop strip mines in the headwaters of the Pistol River and Hunter Creek as well as the headwaters of the Wild and Scenic North Fork of the Smith River, which provides drinking water to downstream communities. RNR Resources, formerly Nicore, wants to mine along Rough and Ready Creek, a tributary of the Illinois River.

U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and Rep. Peter DeFazio have introduced legislation to withdraw the area from all future mining claims and require companies proposing mines to prove their operations are financially viable. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Land Management has proposed a five-year moratorium on mining claims in the area. The public comment period on that proposal closes tomorrow, Monday, Sept. 28 (comment by email at blm_or_wa_withdrawals@blm.gov).

The long-obsolete Mining Act of 1872 designates mining as the highest and best use of public land. It has never been repealed despite multiple attempts. Until Congress can muster the political will to resist the mining lobby, site-specific withdrawals and temporary bans are the best that can be accomplished. The BLM's proposal should be adopted. The future of this region's fish runs and the very nature of our rivers and backcountry depend on it.