A Utah congressman is questioning the legality of the mining withdrawal President Obama approved last year, and that has local fishermen, government officials and environmentalists concerned they might have to go through the entire process again.

Republican Rob Bishop, the House of Representative Natural Resources Committee chair, wants all mineral withdrawals — temporary bans on mining claims — ordered by the Obama administration reviewed, notably the one established to protect 17 miles of the Chetco River and the headwaters of Hunter Creek and Pistol River.

Residents of those areas fought for two years alongside others in Del Norte County and the Medford area to get first a 10-year, then a 20-year, withdrawal placed on those lands. They were concerned after an England-based corporation expressed interest in conducting test drills for nickel, a rare mineral used in high-tech equipment.

Among the reasons cited in the withdrawal request were the pristine waters in the rivers, its use by people downstream, and the reputation mining companies have in abandoning their mining sites, leaving behind SuperFund sites for local and state residents to address.

“This is an egregious overstep by Washington, driven by special interests,” U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio said in a letter to the Interior and Agriculture department secretaries. “The prohibition on mining on the Smith River and the headwaters of Hunter Creek and Pistol River has broad, overwhelming support from thousands of residents of Southwest Oregon, local governments, businesses and community leaders.”

In a Sept. 28 letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Bishop named the Southern Oregon riverways as examples, saying the withdrawals were “improperly justified as being valid under the Federal Lands Policy Management Act (FLPMA).”

Mining is the top priority of public resource use on federal lands under the 1831 Mining Act, which opponents say is long overdue for an update.

Bishop says the FLPMA defines one responsibility of federal land management as ensuring the U.S. receives fair market value of the use of public lands and their resources.

“The two projects affected by this illegal withdrawal are believed to hold quantities of several strategic and critical minerals including nickel, scandium and cobalt,” Bishop wrote. “Today, the United States imports 100 percent of our scandium (mostly from China), 76 percent of our cobalt, and more than 90 percent of our nickel requirements thus making this withdrawal inconsistent with national security interests.”

Mineral withdrawal proponents note that in this case, the Red Flat Mining Corp. is an off-shore corporation and would likely do nothing to benefit the United States’ financial status.

Much of Del Norte’s drinking water comes from the Smith River, and local opposition to upstream mining has been unanimous. Farther north, fishermen argued on behalf of the fisheries in the headwaters, the pristine wilds, rare and endangered plants and recreational opportunities that all could be adversely affected.

Tribal leaders, county commissions, business leaders, community organizations, Oregon’s two senators and the region’s U.S. House representatives supported the effort.

Emails requesting a response from Bishop’s Washington D.C. office were not returned.

Strong reactions

Bishop’s letter to the Trump administration late last month drew the ire of Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden and Congressmen Jared Huffman and DeFazio, who, along with Wyden’s colleague Sen. Jeff Merkley, worked together to secure the mineral withdrawal.

“This new congressional request to undo the Smith River mining ban threatens decades of work by the many people who depend on the Smith River each day and who finally achieved much-needed protections for this watershed this year,” Huffman said. “We cannot place the profits of foreign mining companies above my constituents’ livelihood and basic right to clean water and healthy salmon runs. The Trump administration should leave the Smith River alone.”

DeFazio also blasted Bishop’s request to review all mineral withdrawals ordered by the Obama administration, noting the withdrawal had been debated amongst local communities. In Brookings, the meetings attracted hundreds of angry citizens who voiced their concerns.

“Reopening this area to allow a foreign company to strip-mine our public lands without paying American taxpayers hardly any royalties would devastate surrounding economies and threaten critical drinking water sources,” DeFazio said.

In a statement last week, Wyden said the Trump administration has gone out of its way to substitute Washington D.C. decisions for Oregon determinations about its local natural resources.

“But even with that troubling track record, it’s especially ludicrous that the White House would be asked to step in at the last minute to revisit a mineral withdrawal that’s the product of numerous public meetings with hundreds of supportive comments, which I have advocated for upwards of two decades,” Wyden said.

Headwaters

Dave Lacey, who lives at the headwaters of Hunter Creek and who fought for the withdrawal, called Bishop’s request “horrible and ridiculous,” but added that he’s not sure what will come of it. He doesn’t know if a mineral withdrawal has ever been contested before, either.

He said Bishop’s letter to Purdue and Zinke was “filled with inaccuracies,” and has sent public service announcements to interested parties and others to set the record straight.

Among them, he said, is Bishop’s contention that the withdrawal is illegal, but Lacey noted that the congressman cited the wrong part of the FLPMA, and that the 100,000-acre withdrawal falls under the section addressing lands of 5,000 acres or more.

Secondly, Bishop characterizes the southwest Oregon mineral withdrawal as “baseless” and rooted in “false premises of environmental protectionism.”

“The truth is that the Southwest Oregon mineral withdrawal protects four National Wild and Scenic Rivers, including the headwaters of Redwood National Park — landscapes with clear national significance,” including its pristine water used for fishing and salmon and local recreation and tourism economies.

Fallacies Lacey alleges Bishop’s letter contains involve enactment dates of the withdrawal, the “national security concerns,” and the abundance of nickel. Mineral experts say the likelihood of locating nickel is high but its development potential would be low.

Bishop also said the withdrawal “harms our nation’s economic and strategic potential,” but Lacey said the market is so saturated, the United States doesn’t even hold the mineral in its National Defense Stockpile.

Additionally, most nickel does not come from China, as Bishop stated, but Mexico and Canada, and the 43 percent the U.S. imports from there is recycled material.

Bishop also said the Obama action was a “top-down” decision, but Lacey notes that it was citizens who, over a two-year period, fought for the withdrawal.

Bishop’s attempt to reverse the decision could be low, Lacey admitted.

“But it’s hard to say what Mr. Trump will do; he’s so unpredictable,” he said. “I think it’ll take a lot of effort, and it doesn’t seem like they’re willing to put a lot of effort into things. It’d take going back through the process we went through to get it approved: holding community meetings, getting public comment.”

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