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Land Board delays vote on Salmon River dredger

Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and other Idaho Land Board members delayed voting on a proposed mineral lease Aug. 21, opting to first pay a personal visit to the Salmon River where anglers and a miner are battling over underwater booty: Fishermen say a suction dredger’s search for gold and garnets will hurt their prized steelhead.

The board – Otter, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, Secretary of State Ben Ysursa and Controller Brandon Woolf – agreed to travel to the site 13 miles downstream from Riggins where small-time miner Mike Conklin hopes to strike it rich.

Conklin, of Grangeville, already has a $10 permit from the Idaho Department of Water Resources allowing him to use a gasoline-powered suction dredge to suck up the bottom of the Salmon River in his search for gems and gold. He’s been doing small-scale exploration for two years, and he now wants a five-year lease from the Idaho Department of Lands giving him exclusive rights to mine in a roughly half-mile stretch of water.

After their reconnaissance mission, Land Board members plan to vote on Conklin’s lease in September.

“I actually would like to look at this site,” Wasden said. “Then, I think I could make a better judgment with regard to this.”

For several years, the Idaho Conservation League has sought stricter limits for Idaho’s suction dredge miners, including demanding in 2011 that the federal Environmental Protection Agency enforce federal water pollution laws that would shut down many such operations.

On Aug. 21, a Boise fisherman, John Gordon, joined the group in arguing that Conklin’s plan to suck up the Salmon’s rocky bed with a 5-inch hose attached to a powerful vacuum on floats will ruin some of the river’s best fishing spots.

Gordon contends Conklin should be required to fill in the holes his suction dredger leaves, rather than simply wait for high water to come the following spring to wash rocks back in on their own.

“To me, it’s almost environmental vandalism,” Gordon told the board, contending that dredged holes not only damage fisheries, they exacerbate dangers for unsuspecting anglers who might fall in and drown.

Meanwhile, ICL activist Jonathan Oppenheimer argued that Idaho laws require all suction dredgers to restore areas they disturb close to their original condition. He cited a 1954 citizen’s initiative, which was passed to regulate riverbed mining that dramatically altered miles of the state’s streambeds since the mid-1800s.

The state has for years ignored these reclamation requirements, to Idaho’s rivers’ peril, Oppenheimer said.

“Miners who are disturbing the beds of Idaho’s rivers have a responsibility to re-contour the beds of Idaho’s rivers and streams, so that they protect resources like public access and fishing and aquatic habitat and other beneficial uses of the stream,” he said.

Conklin didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.

But the Idaho Department of Lands, which oversees mineral leases whose proceeds and royalties benefit public schools, are backing his lease proposal.

Agency staff said more than 280 letters, many organized by the environmental group, as well as objections from the Nez Perce Indian Tribe, failed to raise substantive issues and shouldn’t be used as a basis to block the lease.

Eric Wilson, the minerals program manager, also contends that Oppenheimer is misinterpreting Idaho’s rules and laws governing recreational suction dredge mining and its reclamation requirements.

Wilson told the board that regulation of Conklin’s recreational suction dredge operations falls under the Idaho Department of Water Resources, while the Idaho Department of Lands has jurisdiction only over the lease. As such, the Department of Lands has no jurisdiction to require a reclamation plan.

“We’re careful that we know where our boundaries are, and we’re careful that we don’t duplicate regulatory efforts,” Wilson said. “From a regulatory perspective, we really have no involvement.”

In addition to visiting the lease site, Land Board members asked Department of Lands staff to investigate Wilson’s and Oppenheimer’s differing interpretations of reclamation requirements before next month’s vote.

“There’s some interesting questions there that I’d like to see staff look at,” Ysursa said.

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