Friday, May 25, 2012

HCPC and Allies Await Approval for a Settlement Agreement Requiring DEQ to Re-Examine Controversial Mining Practice

In the spring of 2010, we urged our members to comment on the Department of Environmental Quality's (DEQ) new draft permit for regulating suction dredge mining throughout Oregon (the "700PM permit"). A suction dredge is a gasoline-powered vacuum attached to a floating sluice box. Miners use the vacuum to suck up the bottom of streams and rivers and run sediment through the sluice to filter out gold and then dump the sediment back into the stream.

Fishermen and clean water advocates are concerned about the negative effects suction dredge mining can have on fish and aquatic habitat quality.  This mining practice kills fish eggs and offspring thereby reducing fish spawning success, deposits fine sediment on stream bottoms, mobilizes toxic heavy metals and harms macro-invertebrate communities that are an essential part of the aquatic food web.

Because of these negative impacts, HCPC joined a coalition of other conservation groups in January 2011 to challenge DEQ's final 700PM permit in state court for violating state and federal water quality laws.  Over the past several months, however, our coalition has been working to secure a settlement agreement with DEQ that would allow us to dismiss our lawsuit by requiring the agency to re-open the discussion about this controversial mining practice to the public. 
Last week we reached such an agreement.  If approved by the Court, our settlement would require DEQ to robustly examine ways to revise the 700PM permit to ensure compliance with water quality laws and adequately protect fish and their habitat.  Unfortunately, the Eastern Oregon Miners' Association, which intervened as a party to the lawsuit, filed questionable motions that are delaying and threaten to interfere with the Court's approval of our agreement.  We're hopeful these motions can be resolved shortly so we can continue moving forward.

Oregon’s statewide Clean Water Act permits are usually renewed on a five-year basis. The next version of the suction dredging permit should be finalized by July 2014. The settlement agreement outlines a stakeholder process beginning in December 2012 to initiate the next permit renewal.  Based on the settlement, the permit renewal process will consider prohibited areas based on water pollution, fish habitat and specially designated areas, whether to require annual reports and the cost of this activity to the state, among other items. 

The number of suction dredges in Oregon has increased dramatically in recent years.  Permits from the Department of State Lands (DSL) have increased nearly 300% from 656 in 2007 to 2,209 in 2011. DEQ permit registrations in the last two years also show that nearly 30% of suction dredge miners are coming from other states to mine Oregon’s streams and rivers.  This likely includes a sizable number of out-of-state miners that used to go to California to dredge before our neighboring state put a dredging moratorium in place until 2016.  This trend is a serious threat to our streams, rivers and fisheries.

Plaintiffs in this case were represented by the Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center ("PEAC").  HCPC's co-plaintiffs include the Northwest Environmental Defense Center, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, Rogue Riverkeeper, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources, Oregon Coast Alliance and Oregon Wild.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Of Killdeer, Camas, and the Travel Management Plan

I recently worked with a volunteer from the Birdathon, printing small photos of habitat for kids to use in one of the hands-on learning projects Birdathon volunteers offer.  I started thinking about habitat - that conjunction of space/food/water/shelter/structure that allows a species to live there.

It's hard not to notice the killdeer trying to occupy the gravel right-of-way along a back road.  They can't nest there, between the tires and the cats and dogs and horses and bicycles.  The seasonally scrubbed gravel beds along and in the river are mostly gone.  I sometimes fantasize that we could take all the flat roofs on the downtown buildings, add a shallow gravel layer with a little silt for occasional native grasses, and create some of the nesting area that is now subdivisions and streets and straight narrow ditches.  It would take creativity and commitment and a great deal of buy-in from people who probably mostly don't care about the nesting needs of killdeer. 

It would have been so much easier to keep a few gravel ridges and sandbars along the river and major creeks, instead of subverting the natural riverine shapes and patterns to the straight and narrow of the Army Corps of Engineers.  Human convenience, thoughtlessness and arrogance trumped the needs of other species.   It would now take a great deal of money and time and effort to rebuild one gravel ridge or sandbar.  

One of the reasons I support HCPC is that it works to protect the places that do still exist - public lands where wildlife can still find the habitat they need, knowing that it is so much more reasonable (and affordable)  to preserve than to have to rebuild.  And HCPC works to rebuild and restore habitat as well, knowing that we need to repair damage that has been done.  

This is clear in the recent Travel Management Plan for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.  I'm so proud of HCPC advocating for the protection of elk calving grounds from motorized disturbance, for the protection of high wet meadows from destructive and careless cross-country rutting by off-roaders, for the protection of roadless areas from new roads, and for the closure of excess old roads that were supposed to be closed down a decade ago.   

I recently followed the Mt. Emily Road, looking for wildflowers and enjoying the abundance of blooms and silence and birdsong.   It didn't take long though before I saw the terrible damage left by off-road vehicles tearing across a wet meadow.  The ruts were deep, hard set, and showed as dark brown scars bereft of any green in the midst of wildflowers.    In another case the damage went straight up a steep hillside that was now eroding badly.  There were roads around, a LOT of roads - going off both sides from the Mt. Emily road.  There was no need to go where these ruts went, in one case just cutting a corner between the main road and another side road.   

I started thinking about how long it would take for those ruts to heal.  Since we can still see the ruts from wagon wheels over 100 years ago, without our help such wounds last a long time.  Wouldn't it be better not to make them in the first place?     


Sunday, May 13, 2012

Wild Places, Roads and Freedom

From the edge of the road:  Looking into the roadless.  Photo by Brian Kelly

It’s been pretty noisy around northeast Oregon lately.  As the US Forest Service tries to deal with motorized use of public lands, objections have been heard from people who have become accustomed to being able to drive just about anywhere they please.  The Wallowa-Whitman National Forest has more than nine thousand miles of roads, many of them left over from old logging projects.  Over much of the National Forest, you are currently allowed to drive off the roads and across country if you feel like it.

Some folks seem to view the Forest Service travel planning process as a restriction of their freedom and access to public lands.  Of course, when four-wheel-drive vehicles and ATVs drive unrestricted across the landscape then wildlife habitat is degraded, water quality suffers and weeds spread across the countryside.  The peaceful beauty that people seek on public wild lands can become diminished by the impacts of the users.

What about our freedom?  Well, two of America’s greatest conservationists wrote about freedom in describing their relationship with the natural world.

“What avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”

Aldo Leopold wrote these powerful words.  While of course we all need roads to access wild places, at a certain point the presence of a road itself diminishes the very character of the wild place that we seek.  The place where the road ends and the blank spot begins is a special place indeed.   You will find wildlife, old forests, and clean waters when you find the blank spots on the map.

Here are the words of John Muir:

“Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grasses and gentians of glacial meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of nature's darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”

Following his description of freedom in the mountains, John Muir added this next sentence:

“As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature's sources never fail.”

It’s striking to me that rather than complaining about not being allowed to drive a Model T Ford across the forest as he grew older, John Muir chose to rejoice in the enjoyment of nature.

He was a very wise man and a free man as well.

~Brian Kelly

Monday, May 7, 2012

Analysis confirms Wallowa-Whitman Travel Plan Decision leaves plenty of access

It is very important that we use this pause in the Travel Plan Process to better understand what the now withdrawn Decision would have actually done. One of the most common claims put forth against the Travel Plan Decision was that the Forest Service was taking away access to the Forest. Some even claimed that the Forest Service was using the Travel Plan to “lock them out” of the National Forest.

If there were any truth to these claims, HCPC would be very concerned. How are people supposed to cultivate the life-long connections to the National Forestlands that are ultimately necessary to encourage and advocate for better stewardship of these ecosystems, if people can’t connect with them in the first place? So let’s take a close look and see for ourselves what this Decision would do.

With our partners, we performed a GIS analysis based on the Selected Alternative Layer (i.e. the now withdrawn Decision). All open motor vehicle roads and trails are mapped in red. We put a one-mile buffer around all open motor vehicle roads and trails so we could visually see how many places on the National Forest could be accessed in less than one-miles distance from the nearest road, a modest distance. These areas are mapped in grey. If an area is further than one mile from a road, it is mapped in light green. Wilderness is in dark green.

The results graphically illustrate that outside Wilderness areas, nearly the entire National Forest is within one mile of a road. The few small islands that are further than one-mile from a road are usually inside Inventoried Roadless Areas (mapped in black crosshatch). These are very small islands, and based on a visual assessment, it appears that the Decision would not leave anywhere outside designated Wilderness further than two miles from an open road. It’s important to note that the map does not show the areas within Wilderness areas that are less than one-mile from a road. If it did, you could see that much of the North Fork John Day Wilderness would be grey color, and a surprisingly large part of the Eagle Cap Wilderness as well.

These results clearly show that the Forest Service strived to provide very widespread access to the entire Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in their Travel Plan Decision. In our opinion, the Decision did not go far enough to protect roadless areas, old growth forests, critical elk habitat areas, and fragile aquatic environments from the damages of motorized vehicles. We encourage the Forest Service to use this opportunity to strengthen the Travel Plan in these key natural resource areas.

As HCPC stated in our press release on the withdrawal of the Wallowa-Whitman Travel Management Plan, and as is clearly illustrated in the analysis above, there is no validity in the claims that people will no longer have access to the Forest. Moreover, the Travel Plan is not just about access, but also about protection of natural resources and the costs of maintaining the designated road system. As I stated in my editorial
(, what’s really at stake is the quality of the National Forest's we will be accessing.

David Mildrexler, Ecosystem Conservation Coordinator, Hells Canyon Preservation Council