BOISE, Idaho (AP) — An environmental group said Tuesday it had sued the state after the governor and other officials approved a plan to dredge the Salmon River for gold — an operation some contend will harm migrating fish habitat and create hazards for anglers.
The Idaho Conservation League announced it had asked a 4th District Court judge to require the state to approve a reclamation plan before signing off on any mining projects.
In September, Grangeville miner Mike Conklin was awarded a five-year lease by the Idaho Land Board, giving him sole access to a half-mile stretch of river about 13 miles downstream of Riggins where he can mine the gravel for precious metal.
The Boise-based environmental group contends Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter and the other board members ignored laws meant to protect Idaho's water, arguing that miners who use gasoline-powered suction dredges often leave big holes in the riverbed that damage valuable habitat for salmon and steelhead.
"Before anyone goes onto our lands which need to be protected for the benefit of water quality, fisheries and wildlife, and public health and safety, miners need to submit a restoration plan before they're allowed access onto these properties," said Jonathan Oppenheimer of the environmental group. "If there's anywhere there ought to be a high level of scrutiny, it's in the bed of the Salmon River, which is one of the gems of Idaho."
Staff members at the Idaho Department of Lands who oversee mineral leases with proceeds and royalties that benefit public schools, contend the league is misinterpreting state rules and laws governing suction dredge mining and reclamation requirements.
Eric Wilson, minerals program manager, told the Land Board in August that regulation of recreational dredgers such as Conklin falls to the Idaho Department of Water Resources, and the Department of Lands only has jurisdiction over awarding a lease.
On Tuesday, Wilson declined to comment on pending litigation
Some anglers have also opposed Conklin's permit, saying it will hurt popular steelhead fishing areas and create hazardous holes where people could fall in and drown.
In addition to Otter, the Land Board members named as defendants are Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, public schools chief Tom Luna, attorney general Lawrence Wasden, and controller Brandon Woolf.
The Idaho Conservation League says a judge should reverse the Land Board's order granting Conklin a lease. It also wants a review of whether the state erred in deciding that laws such as the Dredge and Placer Mining Protection Act and the Surface Mining Act don't apply to the project.