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(LOWMAN) — Outfitters, businesses, residents, kayakers and conservationists are celebrating a legal victory that helps preserve their clean water, businesses and way of life against the threat of placer mining along the South Fork of the Payette River.

In an unusual move, an administrative judge used a special provision in federal law to balance local needs against the risk of placer mining on national forest land.

Last year, these parties testified against expanded mining activities in and along the South Fork Payette, which provides a combination of scenery, clear water, challenging whitewater, hot springs, camping, abundant wildlife and fishing. Roughly 40,000 people visit the river near Lowman annually to enjoy the water and surroundings.

This past week federal administrative law judge Andrew S. Pearlstein prohibited mining along 10 miles of the South Fork Payette, determining that the risk to existing economic and recreational activities outweighed the potential benefits of mining development:

“After hearing, I have concluded that the great preponderance of the evidence shows that placer mining would substantially interfere with other uses of the land within the claims and adjacent to them along the River, particularly uses involving recreation (kayaking, rafting, and camping), fisheries, cultural resources, and scenic values. These other uses have far greater economic and unquantifiable values than any potential value that could be derived from placer mining the claims. Therefore, in this Decision I conclude that placer mining should be completely prohibited on all the subject claims.”

In 2017, two mining companies filed for 35 placer mining claims in and along the South Fork Payette to seek gold in sand and gravel deposits. The claims spanned 10 miles upstream of Lowman, encompassing most of the popular whitewater stretch from the Helende Campground down to the Mountain View Campground, as well as above and below Kirkham Hot Springs. Proposed mining operations included suction dredging the riverbed or excavating trenches or pits in the banks and terraces.

While the U.S. Forest Service manages surface resources for the public, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has jurisdiction over mining claims. Under the Mining Law of 1872, once the BLM has granted a mining claim, the Forest Service cannot prohibit mining and can only seek to minimize the environmental impacts of mining operations. However, this area of the South Fork Payette was previously withdrawn from mineral entry because of its potential for hydroelectric power development. The area was reopened to mining under the Mining Claims Rights Restoration Act of 1955 but – unlike the Mining Law of 1872 – this law allows for the consideration of existing uses that could be negatively affected by placer mining activities.

When the mining companies filed for the placer claims, the Forest Service became concerned about how mining activities could affect the many outstanding values of the South Fork of the Payette and associated economic activities. The Forest Service requested that the BLM suspend mining operations until the BLM held a hearing to consider these existing uses.

The Administrative Law Judge for the BLM accepted several days of testimony from local community members, Forest Service specialists, and the claimants. The judge also considered over 400 comments from the public, all of which were opposed to mine development. On March 4, 2019, the judge ruled that mining activities would substantially interfere with other existing uses and completely prohibited placer mining on all the claims.

Local residents, businesses and conservationists who were gratified by the decision:

“This is a win for not only the Lowman economy and recreation but for mother nature as well!” said Ginger Glaccum with the Payette River Company. “The Lowman area is finally showing some vitality after the ’89 fire.  It would have been terrible to lose this wild and scenic area that is flourishing so much.”

Lisa Chambers, who owns the Haven Hot Springs in Lowman with her husband, said, “This is a win for every person and creature who enjoys or depends on the Payette as is, from rafters, river guides and hot springs soakers to trout, otters and osprey. The community of Lowman is finally recovering from the catastrophic ’89 fire and has certainly avoided a harsh blow.”

“This is a win for all Idahoans who will continue to be able to experience the outstanding scenic and recreational opportunities the South Fork has to offer,” said Cam Johnson, who owns a cabin next to the river. “This decision ensures that even after I’m gone future generations will be able to experience its beauty and build the types of lasting memories that I have,” continued Johnson.

“We are thrilled,” said Kenneth Long with Cascade Raft and Kayak. “We value our river and livelihoods. These can’t be easily replaced. This ruling will allow everyone to enjoy the river and keep it available for generations to come.”

“I am happy that a decision has been made to protect such a beautiful wild and scenic area such as Lowman, said Kevin Courtney, owner of the Lowman Inn. “We all have to realize that we have to protect our natural resources for our future generations.”

“This decision is an undeniable exhibit of action to preserve and perpetuate the free flowing beauty and treasure of the South Fork of the Payette River,” said Anke and Emil Hutton of Lowman.

“I am grateful that the judge’s decision reflects values of good stewardship of our river, which supports our wildlife, ecosystem, Lowman community and visitors alike!” said Carol Stockton, owner of Eagle Horizons Mountain Oasis.

“We are pleased that the judge placed a greater value on the many ecological and recreational benefits of the South Fork Payette River,” said Kevin Lewis of Idaho Rivers United.

“Folks really came together to support the river and everyone who depends on it,” said John Robison, Public Lands Director with the Idaho Conservation League.