WASHINGTON — The Bush administration said Tuesday it will allow new mining to resume on nearly 1 million acres of southwestern Oregon's Siskiyou region, one of the most diverse ecological habitats in the country.
The decision to cancel a two-year moratorium on new claims opens the area to more prospectors, many of whom build shacks on national forest and Bureau of Land Management land and use giant, gasoline-powered dredges to suck material from stream beds in search of gold.
In place of the moratorium, the administration proposed that mining not be allowed on about 83,000 acres of national forest land and 34,000 acres of BLM land--about one-tenth the size of the original area.
The news disturbed local conservationists and World Wildlife Fund officials, who had urged the Clinton and Bush administrations to designate a national monument in the area.
It has 15 wild rivers tumbling through forested canyons and more than 280 plants unknown anywhere else on Earth.
Just before leaving office in January 2001, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt announced the moratorium on new mining to limit damage to the wilderness while the area was being considered for permanent protection.
"It's the latest installment in the Bush administration's program to cut, drill, dig, stomp and chomp our public lands," said Dave Willis, a member of the board of the Siskiyou Project, a local conservation group.
"This is an attack on some of the best wild salmon and steelhead habitat in the Lower 48 and one of the most botanically diverse coniferous forests in North America."
But the association that represents many of the several hundred small-time miners who have staked claims on these federal lands applauded the decision.
"There is a large number of people trying to make a living out of mining done in the Siskiyou," said John Holleman, executive director of Oregon Independent Miners.
No one knows exactly how much gold or other minerals the miners have been extracting from these federal lands since miners do not have to pay royalties to the federal government. While some miners use suction dredgers to search for gold, others drill holes into the sides of the mountains and use explosives. They then crush up the ore to extract gold, silver and platinum, Holleman said.
Conservationists say both types of mining are wreaking havoc. "Free-flowing rivers, wild salmon, rare plants and globally outstanding biological diversity are the true wealth of the Siskiyou Wild Rivers area, not a few nuggets of gold," said Barbara Ullian, conservation director of the Siskiyou Project.
The region has a unique and ancient ecosystem, home to scores of plants found nowhere else, and contains the highest concentration of intact forests and large watersheds on the Pacific Coast.
U.S. Forest Service and BLM officials said their proposal to keep some land off-limits to mining reflects the government's concerns.
"We identified areas with special and unique resource values, and our proposal is to withdraw those areas," said Karen Gillespie, spokeswoman for the BLM's office in Medford, Ore. The Forest Service's proposal would prohibit new mining claims in the stream beds and quarter-mile buffer zones of 12 streams that are candidates for protection as wild and scenic rivers, according to Mary Marrs, a spokeswoman for the Siskiyou National Forest.
New claims will also be denied in the areas of Dunn Creek and Taylor Creek, which provide habitat for the threatened coho salmon, she added.
However, new mining claims would be allowed on many other rivers and streams. BLM officials said that the agency's new regulations, requiring miners to post bonds that will be used if they fail to repair damage to the land, would protect the region.
Those regulations are less stringent than a Clinton administration proposal that would have, for the first time, given federal land managers authority to reject individual claims if they were concerned about the impact to the environmental, recreational or other uses of the land. The Bush administration removed that provision from the rules.