Over the past few weeks, more than 400 people have joined us by speaking up against the Idaho Department of Lands proposed gravel mine in the Salmon River. Today’s editorial (below) in The Lewiston Tribune spotlights this issue, hopefully prompting further action against this proposal.

(Editorial shared with permission from author Marty Trillhaase, The  Lewiston Tribune.)

Six decades of gravel mining may be enough

Marty Trillhaase, Jan 30, 2012

Just name to name a few, here are some of the developments that have occurred in the 57 years since the Idaho Department of Lands first licensed Ron Mahurin to begin mining gravel at Russell Bar along the bed of the Salmon River near White Bird.

The Endangered Species Act.

The Clean Water Act.

The Environmental Protection Agency.

The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.

Diminished stocks of bull trout, salmon and steelhead, prompting the need to preserve habitat.

Sometime after 2002, Mahurin’s lease was transferred to Tim Kaschmitter of Grangeville, who wants the Idaho Land Board to renew it. He also needs a stream-channel alteration permit from the Idaho Water Resources Department to extend gravel mining another five years.

Most of the time, these permits got renewed without much notice. This time, however, the Idaho Conservation League has spotlighted the issue.

Idaho has many gravel mines. But it has no more than 10 commercial mines in a riverbed or streambed. And only two-Russell Bar, as well as the Snake River above Milner Dam near Burley-involve state-owned lands requiring a lease from the Land Board.

On the Salmon, you’re talking about a waterway that serves as habitat for endangered bull trout, steelhead and salmon. Stretches of that river contain spawning nests for fall chinook. Think of the millions of dollars spent on fish recovery since the species’ numbers plummeted after completion of the dams on the lower Snake River. How does that huge investment comport with disturbing gravel, sand and soil on the bed of the Salmon River?

Six decades ago, nobody thought much of scooping up gravel along a river bed and waiting for the runoff to restore it. Now, there’s greater sensitivity to how dredging and filling can affect a river’s ecosystem. Operations can loosen soils, causing erosion. When a hole is dug when the river is low, it’s the first thing to fill during runoff, diverting materials that naturally would have gone somewhere else.

Despite ICL’s entreaties, the Walla Walla office of the Army Corps of Engineers says no permit to discharge dredged materials under the Clean Water Act is required at the Russell Bar site. Were it otherwise, the Army Corps would be obligated to consult with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries about the project’s effects on endangered fish. The feds could identify steps to minimize harm, including what kind of equipment could be used, when operations could commence and when they must cease, and impose mandated restoration work.

ICL argues Walla Walla’s policy contrasts with that of the Army Corps’ Portland District, which requires people engaging in gravel scalping along river beds to get a federal permit first.

All of which leaves this matter in the hands of Idaho’s Land Board-made up of its elected officials including Gov. C.L. (Butch) Otter, Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, schools Superintendent Tom Luna, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and Controller Donna Jones. All Republicans, all elected officials, they side more with business than environmental interests.

Still, many of their constituents will be stunned to find a gravel mine running along the Salmon River. ICL has prompted more than 400 comments to the Land Board so far. This is far from a routine permit renewal. Doesn’t it deserves a fresh look? – M.T.