The South Fork Payette River is one of southern Idaho’s preeminent recreational rivers. Unfortunately, the river is threatened by mining.

Earlier this year, miners filed more than three dozen claims along a beloved and well-used stretch of the South Fork Payette upstream of Lowman, Idaho. The area is popular for camping, boating, fishing, hot springing, hiking and other recreational uses. According to some reports, many of these claims were applied for with the intent to sell them on the internet.

In most instances, public lands (national forests and Bureau of Land Management lands) are open to mining under the 1872 Mining Law, which recognizes mining as the  highest and best use. As a result, when mining claims are filed, there is little that federal or state governments (or concerned citizens) can do to stop the mining, even if it would harm water quality, wildlife habitat, endangered species, recreational areas, or if it would interfere with other public uses.

South Fork Payette Situation Is Different

Because the South Fork Payette was identified for possible dam construction in 1926, the area was closed to mining. In 1955, Congress passed the Mining Claims Rights Restoration Act, which provided that some mining could occur in these areas as long as it didn’t “substantially interfere with other uses of the land.”

That means that mining doesn’t reign supreme and that  the federal government can contest the claims if it would harm other valid uses like recreation, fish habitat, aesthetic and cultural values.

Because of the potential for mining to compromise existing uses of the South Fork Payette, the Boise National Forest is moving forward with a process to contest these mining claims and protect the river. The Idaho Conservation League strongly supports this effort to protect the South Fork Payette River.  This river has been found eligible as a wild and scenic river for its outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, hydrologic and cultural resource values.  The South Fork Payette River canyon is characterized by steep slopes, sensitive soils and beautiful scenery. It’s not the place for 37 mining operations.

Has This Worked Before?

Yes. In 2013, the Nez-Perce Clearwater National Forest challenged mining claims on the North Fork Clearwater River. They argued that mining would “substantially interfere” with recreational, aesthetic, fish and wildlife and other values. The hearing officer agreed and found that “placer mining would substantially interfere with other substantial recreational and cultural uses.”

Chime In on This Effort

If preventing mining in the South Fork Payette is going to be successful, the Forest Service needs to hear from you. Before the deadline of Dec. 13, take a moment to speak up for this river [action is no longer active], which is more important than gold!