A federal judge has declared invalid the U.S. Forest Service’s approval of a gold mining company’s plan to reopen a 4-mile road in a central Idaho wilderness and drill core samples to find out if two of its claims are profitable enough to be mined.
U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill said in a ruling August 2 that the agency violated environmental laws in approving American Independence Mines and Minerals Co.’s plan in the Frank Church River Of No Return Wilderness.
Winmill sent the case back to the Forest Service to do another analysis.
The Idaho Conservation League and four other groups sued the Forest Service following the agency’s June 2015 approval of the mining company’s plan that includes 571 motorized trips into the wilderness area to build 11 drill pads. Vehicles would include four-wheel-drive pickups, a dump truck, a flatbed truck, a bulldozer and a small excavator.
“The Frank Church Wilderness is a national treasure that deserves the utmost protection against needlessly destructive mining activities,” said Bonnie Gestring of Earthworks in a statement. “We’re pleased the court is requiring a more thorough analysis of less harmful measures.”
The Wilderness Society, Friends of the Clearwater and Wilderness watch also took part in the lawsuit.
It’s not clear when the Forest Service will complete the supplemental environmental impact statement as directed by Winmill.
Winmill said the Forest Service violated the law by basing its decision possibly using information supplied by the company but withheld from the public. Winmill said it was unclear because he didn’t have the information either.
Winmill also said that federal officials failed to make available their reasoning leading to the decision to approve the mining company’s work.
He also said the Forest Service violated environmental laws by not considering the reduction in motorized trips by having workers walk the 3 miles through the wilderness to the mine.
David Lombardi, a Boise-based attorney with Givens Pursley who represents the mining company, said Winmill’s decision reminded him of the admonition by math teachers to show your work.
Winmill “did not invalidate the plan,” Lombardi said. “He simply said you have not done the process correctly. Go back and do it again.”
Some of the withheld information Winmill referred to is considered proprietary by the company. Lombardi said the company would make available information the Forest Service needed to meet Winmill’s requirements.
In the 28-page ruling, Winmill noted the difficult task the Forest Service has in balancing the 1872 Mining Law that opens federal lands to mining and the Wilderness Act passed 92 years later intended to keep designated wilderness areas pristine.
“The conflict between these laws is obvious — mining will never be compatible with wilderness,” Winmill wrote.
The mining company’s claims predate the 1980 formation of the River of No Return Wilderness. The company wants to mine two of those claims but must first prove they are valid claims with marketable amounts of minerals. To do that, Winmill said, noting the company’s right to mine in the wilderness, the company must be allowed to do work that includes activities that wouldn’t normally be permitted in a wilderness area.