With this season’s snowpack piling up, it’s not just the skiers that are stoked. Everyone who looks forward to a healthy runoff-river runners, ranchers, fishermen and farmers-are also smiling. It’s not just about water quantity, but quality as well. Idaho’s water quality is the foundation to our quality of life.

The Salmon River system provides world-class opportunities for rafters, fishermen, campers, hikers and kayakers-and it supports communities farther downstream. While not as well known to many as the Main Salmon or the Middle Fork, the South Fork Salmon River is unique because it provides the most important remaining habitat for summer Chinook salmon in the Columbia River basin. This river and its tributaries like the East Fork South Fork also support steelhead, bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout.

The East Fork South Fork headwaters encompass the historic Stibnite mine site and an exploratory drilling project sponsored by Canadian mining company, Midas Gold. This project would require hauling large amounts of fuel and drilling in riverside areas. The Idaho Conservation League has been extremely concerned about the risk of a fuel spill into the South Fork Salmon River and the on-site impacts from drilling operations.

Through the U.S. Forest Service’s public comment and objection process, we were able to work with interested parties to find a way to better reduce impacts and mitigate for increased traffic and exploration activities. The Forest Service deserves credit for scaling back the project and not allowing fuel haul along the South Fork Salmon River Road. In addition, the Forest Service agreed to develop an implementation website so the public can better track the project and see if the mining company is complying with important safeguards. Furthermore, the Forest Service agreed to improve the groundwater monitoring and response plan.

We were pleased that Midas Gold dropped its plans to drill in the Sugar Creek Inventoried Roadless Area. Midas Gold also agreed to take additional steps to reduce impacts on fish and streams as well as mitigate for increased traffic along Johnson Creek and the East Fork South Fork Salmon. We appreciate the fact that all parties worked together on creative solutions to minimize impacts. Due to importance of the South Fork, we think that all these steps are the minimum requirements of any operation in the watershed.

The Idaho Conservation League will now focus our efforts on ensuring the design features and mitigation measures of the exploration project are properly implemented. However, having seen the impact of previous mining projects in the Stibnite area and throughout Idaho, we don’t think that the current open-pit mine plan is compatible with protecting the clean water, fish, wildlife and recreation in the South Fork Salmon River headwaters.

Midas Gold deserves credit for proposing a range of restoration activities along with its open-pit mine plan. But it is far easier to manage an exploration drilling operation and mitigate for traffic than to manage an open pit mine dug 400′ below the riverbed and mitigate for the loss of bull trout spawning habitat buried underneath mine tailings. Any mistakes at the site will flow downstream. When a historic dam at Stibnite failed in 1965 (creating Blowout Creek), the cloud of sediment reportedly traveled down the East Fork, South Fork and Main Salmon all the way to Riggins.

Should Midas Gold move forward, we hope the company will continue to work with all members of public and will reconfigure the open-pit mine plan to maximize restoration opportunities and further reduce the mine footprint and risks. Having successfully worked together through the exploration permitting process, all parties now have a greater understanding of the importance of the South Fork Salmon River and hopefully a greater stake in protecting it.