The Middle Fork and Main Salmon Rivers are two of our nation’s most treasured waterways — located right here in central Idaho. These majestic rivers are protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. However, because mining claims in the region often date back until the late 1880s and the Mining Law of 1872 (as amended) gives the claim owners the right to reasonably explore for valuable minerals on their claims, the Wild and Scenic designation on these rivers does not fully preclude mineral exploration and development. Thus, we still have to closely monitor mining activity along these special rivers despite their Wild and Scenic status.

In 2021, mining company Codaho, LLC proposed to explore for copper and cobalt in a highly sensitive location near the confluence of the Middle Fork and Main Salmon Rivers, approximately 35 miles west of Salmon, ID. Specifically, the Colson Copper-Cobalt 3 mineral exploration project proposed to construct 38 mineral exploration drill sites and up to 12.6 miles of new temporary roads, resulting in up to 42 acres of ground disturbance. A number of the proposed drill sites were to be located within the designated wild and scenic river corridor for the Main Salmon River as well as other drill sites that would likely be visible to boaters rafting the final few miles of the Middle Fork prior to its confluence with the Main Salmon.

Main Salmon River.

ICL, along with our partners at Idaho Rivers United (IRU) and American Rivers (AR), submitted comments to the Forest Service on this project back in 2021, expressing concerns about impacts to the designated wild and scenic rivers and bull trout. When these concerns were not fully addressed in the draft decision approving the project, ICL, IRU, and AR jointly filed an administrative objection to the draft decision and subsequently engaged with the Forest Service in resolution talks. We recently successfully reached a resolution to our administrative objection. In exchange for us withdrawing our objection, the Forest Service and the mining company have agreed to make the following changes to the proposal:

  1. Remove all 4 proposed drill sites within the Main Salmon Wild and Scenic river corridor
  2. Remove all 4 proposed drill sites that would be visible from the Middle Fork Salmon River
  3. Conduct helicopter drilling first to assess mineral potential prior to building new temporary roads that could be visible from the Middle Fork Salmon River
  4. Provide additional support and analysis in the project decision regarding potential impacts to bull trout and its critical habitat.

Furthermore, the proposal already contained design conditions that require the full recontouring and monitored revegetation of the disturbed areas.

Bighorn sheep along the pristine Middle Fork Salmon River, which runs through the heart of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.

We are pleased to have reached this negotiated resolution that will minimize the project’s impacts to the Main Salmon and Middle Fork. Nonetheless, ICL and our NGO partners will be closely monitoring this exploration project as it moves into the implementation phase to ensure that environmental impacts are properly minimized and the sanctity of our treasured wild and scenic rivers is preserved. If this exploration project were to proceed to mining (which is purely hypothetical at this point), the company would first have to submit a full Plan of Operations to the Forest Service. The agency would then have to analyze the mine proposal under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and likely conduct an Environmental Impact Statement. In this scenario, the public would have multiple opportunities to be involved. 

Despite the recent positive developments at the site from an environmental perspective, until the Mining Law of 1872 is reformed, special places like the Main Salmon and the Middle Fork will remain at risk from mining impacts. ICL will continue to work across the state to raise the bar on mining projects where risks can be managed while opposing irresponsible mining projects in highly sensitive locations that could have significant long-term impacts to public health, fish, wildlife, and other resources.

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