2020 River Steward of the Year

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Save the South Fork Salmon Coalition

River Steward Award
Looking downstream from high above the river. The South Fork Salmon River is located deep in the Idaho Wilderness.
Photo: Brian Ward

Whitewater Awards: Who is Save the South Fork Salmon?

Save the South Fork Salmon: Save the South Fork Salmon is a Valley County, Idaho based grass roots organization that strives to protect and preserve the ecological, cultural, and economic resources of the South Fork of the Salmon River watershed and the well-being of the people and communities that depend on these resources for generations to come. Further, we aim to promote ecologically informed stewardship of the river and its tributaries. As a diverse group of local people we know the importance of vigilance in the protection of high elevation headwaters for water quality, unique habitat, and all the downriver economies that are dependent on the healthy and vibrant watershed.

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The South Fork Salmon is often described by paddlers as a big water wilderness run.
Photo: Brian Ward

WA: Catch us up on what exactly the project is. Give us a 10,000 foot view for those that are not aware. For those that have been following the project – get us up to speed. 

SSFS: The Stibnite Gold Project poses the most imminent threat to the health of the South Fork of the Salmon watershed. Midas Gold Corp., a Canadian company with no experience operating a mine, is proposing a massive open pit cyanide leach gold mine right on top of the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon River, a major tributary with excellent paddling opportunities. They propose to divert the river into a nearly mile long tunnel in order to mine for microscopic gold particles several hundred feet beneath the river bed.  

Over the past century mining has occurred in this area leaving a legacy of ongoing water quality impacts and anadromous fish barriers in the river. Taxpayers have funded nearly $13 million to undertake site cleanup, but more needs to be done. Midas Gold Corp claims the Stibnite Gold Project will “restore the site” to a more natural and productive state after mining operations cease. Their plan calls for three open pits, two of which will left on the landscape forever, a 400-acre tailings storage facility behind a 400-foot tall earthen dam, and numerous other waste rock dumps burying miles tributary streams of the East Fork.  

The South Fork of the Salmon and its tributaries, including the East Fork, are designated critical habitat for Endangered Species Act list Chinook, Steelhead, and Bull Trout. How Midas proposes to carry out this operation on the edge of the Frank Church River Of No Return Wilderness Area requires some significant assumptions about the accuracy and efficacy of the modeling that underlies their operations plan. Opponents consider the Stibnite Gold Project too great a risk to the watershed. The costs associated with the project will far outweigh any purported benefits. There are other solutions to remediating and healing the scars of historic mining at Stibnite that do not involve constructing what will be the 6th largest gold producing mine in the United States. Bringing these solutions forward will require creative thinking to secure funding, authority, and legal assurances to undertake the work. It’s worth noting that recent baseline water quality studies completed by the USGS show the site in a stable condition. Water quality impairments, although still showing elevated levels of arsenic and antimony, are not increasing; indicating the initial remediation effort was successful.

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A truly wild place.

WA: Who are the major players in this project?

SSFS: Midas Gold Corp, a Vancouver, Canada based corporation with three wholly-owned subsidiaries in the United States; Stibnite Gold Company and Idaho Gold Resources which own the unpatented and patented mining claims comprising the project, and Midas Gold Idaho, Inc. which operates the permitting and public relations campaign to move the project from design to implementation.

Payette National Forest is the lead permitting agency and is tasked with doing the National environment Policy Act (NEPA) Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) which will disclose the impacts of the Stibnite Gold Project. Numerous other agencies including the US Army Corp of Engineers, EPA, Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, Idaho Department of Lands, NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service, and Valley County are involved with the scores of permits needed to operate the mine.

1872 General Mining Act has governed mining law in the United States for the past 148 years. While environmental laws and regulations have improved since 1872, the general premise that mining is the “highest and best use of public lands” remains a formidable barrier to considering other beneficial uses on equal grounds as mineral extraction. The United States does not collect any royalties or substantial fees for valuable minerals taken from public land. The hundreds of billions of dollars that have literally been given away for free is even more staggering when considering that coal, oil and gas extraction collects royalties and fees to fund reclamation of abandoned mine lands.

Since time immemorial the Nez Perce Tribe has subsisted in the South Fork of the Salmon watershed. In 1855 the Tribe signed a treaty with the United States that “secured […] the right of taking fish at all usual and accustomed places in common with citizens of the Territory; and of erecting temporary buildings for curing, together with the privilege of hunting, gathering roots, berries, and pasturing their horses and cattle upon open and unclaimed land” (Treaty with the Nez Perces, 1855). The Nez Perce Tribe operates one of the most robust fishery and habitat restoration programs in the entire Columbia River basin. They expend millions of dollars each year in the South Fork of the Salmon watershed to maintain viable fisheries and exercise their reserved rights as outlined in the treaty. The Nez Perce Tribe Executive Committee signed a resolution opposing the Stibnite Gold Project in October 2018. In August 2019 the Tribe sued Midas Gold Corp and its subsidiaries for violating the Clean Water Act by discharging polluted water into the East Fork of the South Fork and its tributaries without the appropriate permits. This litigation is ongoing. The Tribe secured a victory last January when the judge allowed the lawsuit to proceed after several motions by Midas Gold’s lawyers to have it dismissed

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Photo: Brian Ward

WA: We are an international community, how can folks get involved & support from afar? If it is money that you need, where does it go and what is it for?

SSFS: We always need money. Midas Gold Corp is backed by some of the largest multinational mining companies and investment firms. We’re a dedicated group of people who live, work, play, and raise our families here. The money we raise now is going to consultants we’ve contracted with to scrutinize the NEPA analysis of the project (geochemistry, hydrology, groundwater hydrology, fish biologist, air quality, structural engineers, etc.). It also covers operating expenses and legal fees. SSFS is comprised of an all volunteer Board of Directors.

Idaho Rivers United is another place you can go to give support.

[ If you are able to support Save the South Fork Salmon by donation, click here ]

WA: What are the long term effects of either outcome? What does it mean to community?

SSFS: This really depends on one’s point of view. With irreversible and irretrievable commitments of public resources if one views the benefits of operating a massive mine for 25 years or so, employing several hundred people, and producing a relatively useless metal like gold (80% of all gold is used for jewelry, bullion, coins…basically human hoarding tendencies) as outweighing the costs of the impacts this type of activity has on ecosystems, climate change, health and well-being of communities then it is, in short-term, a great way to make a pile of money for a relatively few individuals. In essence the activity furthers a status quo of policies that places ecological and human well-being inferior to corporate profits.  If one empathizes with the opposite of the aforementioned then the opportunity to develop creative solutions to remediate impacted ecosystems and promote human well-being and equity becomes a real possibility.

WA: In such a politically divided time, how is it best to discuss the importance of the cessation of this project to those who may be in support of the mining? How do we attempt to change their minds?

SSFS: The best way to approach these types of discussions is to meet the opposite viewpoint in the middle. It is important to listen to why others have the opinions, values, judgements that they do. If you cannot do that the conversation usually falls into a death spiral of my way or the highway. There is a reason for the plethora of academic literature on “wicked problems” in society. If someone is deeply entrenched in a viewpoint it may be difficult, if not impossible, to make them see the world as you do. However, the best approach that I’ve found with the Stibnite Gold Project is to point out that no one has offered an alternative solution to remediate the environmental issues left by historic mining activity at Stibnite. There are several, and they are not easy. With “political will,” which means decision makers in power who see the value of ecosystems and human well-being as more important than corporate profits, these solutions are possible.  The other piece of this is fish; Chinook Salmon, Steelhead Trout, and Bull Trout.  All three are listed threatened under the ESA and the South Fork Salmon watershed provides high elevation spawning and rearing habitat which will be critical for the survival of these fish in the face of a changing climate.  Keep in mind that people who support the mine don’t want to trash the river, they really believe that mining will make it better.  They just see a different way of doing it.  We all carry assumptions and biases around.  Be humble, be very informed, this helps in any conversation arguing differing view points.

Glenn Daglesh Lefty Lucky 2514

WA: With a community as strong and powerful as we have, what are your thoughts on getting more of us involved with river stewardship?

SSFS: Get informed on the issues that interest you; Columbia River Systems Operations, water quality standards, gold mines, whatever.  Focus on a couple because there are so many you don’t want to make your head spin.  It will allow you to prioritize your efforts when it comes time to make public comment or do some investigative reporting.  River enthusiasts need to be active in their local communities to empower each other to make good decisions for their community’s futures.  We have a unique perspective on natural forces, a deep knowledge that can provide important perspective on these kinds of issues.

WA: The South Salmon is on the top 5 endangered rivers list released by American Rivers. What does that mean for momentum in protection? 

SSFS: Save the South Fork Salmon appreciates American Rivers naming the South Fork of the Salmon 3 years in a row. The momentum is helpful on a national level. Policy makers need to know that corporate lobbyists do not tell the entire story. It is important to have larger organizations involved, which helps SSFS with resources to provide expert comments and analysis on the EIS. Ultimately, if our concerns are not addressed through the NEPA process we have the ability pursue remedies in the appropriate venue.

WA: Where can we go to stay up to date & get accurate information about this project?

Rob Lesser
The wildness of our natural world is declining. We need to do everything we can to protect what remains. As river advocates I urge you to join the fight.

– Whitewater Pioneer, Rob Lesser

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One of the most quality multiday trips you can find.
Photo: Brian Ward

James Byrd

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