Protecting the beautiful rivers, wild lands and legendary botanical diversity of Oregon's Kalmiopsis Country

Mining the Wild and Scenic Illinois River

Fisheries scientists Jack Williams and Mike Dombeck, in their recent guest opinion for the Oregonian, urge Congress to pass the Chetco River Protection Act “sooner rather than later.” Instream mining on the nearby National Wild and Scenic Illinois River is one of the best arguments for the legislation.  By their own admission, the Forest Service erred in 1991, when they recommended that 4 miles of Scenic Illinois River be re-opened the 1872 Mining Law. The Illinois River example is one more reason for Congress to act quickly in order to prevent large-scale instream mining on 15 or more miles of the beloved Wild and Scenic Chetco River. 

Popular Nook Bar on the Wild and Scenic Chetco River where instream mining with suction dredges weighing up to one ton could take precedent over all other uses. Rich Nawa photo

Mineral withdrawal popular in Oregon: The Chetco River legislation would withdraw 17 miles of the river from operation of the 1872 Mining Law. The area, 5,610 acres, is currently temporarily withdrawn to give Congress time to consider the legislation. Earlier this year over 11,800 comments were received in support of the Obama Administration’s administrative withdrawal. Only 6 opposed it. Approximately 75% of the comments were from Oregon.

An unjust archaic law: Mining advocate Dianna Blazo, disagrees with Williams and Dombeck. In her follow-up guest opinion, she says the Chetco is “our” river and needs to be left open for all to enjoy.  Her message might sound democratic, but it’s not. By “our” river we assume she’s referring to herself and fellow miners because, under the 1872 law, mining is treated as the dominant use on public lands.

Professional land managers that work for the Forest Service and BLM believe the 1872 Mining Law makes hard rock mining a dominant use of public lands.

Mike Dombeck, former Chief of the Forest Service, testifying before Congress on Mining Law Reform in 2008. According to the Forest Service’s local policy, they can’t say no to a mining operation, unless an area is withdrawn from operation of the 1872 Mining Law.

Crowd at Six Mile Creek, which is currently withdrawn from the Mining Law but the administrative withdrawal is up for renewal in 2013.  Photo from Grants Pass Courier Video.

Beating the heat on the Wild and Scenic Illinois River: On a hot summer day there has been as many as 2,000 people crowded into a few areas on this beautiful and popular National Wild and Scenic River. The steep canyon terrain makes it difficult to access the river itself along much of the Scenic Corridor—with two exceptions.  It’s these two reaches—where there’s wadeable, swimmable waters—that families, especially those with young children, are drawn.  The most popular of the two was administratively withdrawn from the 1872 Mining Law in 1993 and no instream mining is allowed.

Families flock to the Wild and Scenic Illinois River because the waters are cleaner and safer than the Rogue River. Grants Pass Courier video photo.

The other river segment—the upper 4 miles of the Scenic River Area—was opened to the 1872 Mining Law in 1991, in a puzzling decision, after it had been withdrawn for 23 years. Here river access and swimmable/wadeable waters are limited also, but there’s an added impediment to the public’s use and enjoyment of the Wild and Scenic Illinois River—mining, which is taking precedent over all other uses.

Under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act the Forest Service’s mandate is to “protect and enhance” the Illinois River’s outstandingly remarkable water quality. Rich Nawa photo.

The $1 million Illinois River Recreation Plan: The heavy use of the two most accessible and popular parts of the Scenic Illinois River was creating problems with big concerns over public health and safety and impacts to the river’s environment. In response, the Foret Service began a multi year recreation planning process and acquired funding to implement the plan.

Click on article for readable size.

In 2006, most of the vault toilets and other facilities, including parking areas, shelters and vehicle barriers were in place. District Ranger Pam Bode described the $1 million plus project:

This is part of the Forest Service’s effort to contribue to tourism in the Illinois River Valley, [District Ranger] Bode said. I’m please we were successful in attracting this kind of funding.” The improvements were done partly to restrict recreation use in inappropriate locations, reduce user conflicts and improve public health and safety. Between the forest boundary and the McCaleb Ranch, parking will be restricted to safe locations, and camping will be limited to designated sites only.

Grants Pass Dailey Courier November 27, 2006.

Everyone is supposed to comply—except miners: Agency staff and law enforcement have incrementally worked toward compliance with the general public.

Scenic section of the Wild and Scenic Illinois River that’s closed to the Mining Law. Forest Service Recreation planners devised a way to address the impacts of vehicles driving on beaches, river bars and banks by designating area where the public can park and not allowing vehicles off road.

However, a complete pass for complying with the Illinois River Recreation Plan has been given to the miners on the upper 4 miles of the river.  The photo below shows what the public often finds on a hot summer day at one of few accessible areas where families with young children can go.[1]  A family with young children and are confined to a harder to access area upstream of the mining and closer to the rapid with faster water. Dianna Blazo and other miners might find the mining enjoyable but not many members of the public are likely to.

Mining of one of the few accessible reaches of the Wild and Scenic Illinois River restricts publics access and forces families closer to the rapid and faster water. Rich Nawa photo.

Tempers flare, miner threatens camper with a gun: The miners have established long term camps at a day use area near the Green Bridge across the Illinois River where under the Recreation Plan vehicles are not allow to drive or park and where overnight camping is not allowed.

Long-term miner’s camp at the Green Bridge. River planners prohibited vehicles from driving off road to prevent damage to river banks and allow for day use. Rich Nawa photo.

The miners drive, park their vehicles and camp where they want, including on one of the few gravel bars on this stretch of the river and where driving and parking vehicles is not allowed. Expensive gates installed as part of the Illinois Recreation Plan, to prevent further damage to the river environment and to establish day use areas, are left open by current Forest Service managers, reportedly on the excuse that miners access can’t be restricted.

A long term miners camp on one of the few gravel bars in the 4 miles of the Scenic River Area with relatively easy access and slower shallower waters. Other users are not allowed to drive vehicles on the river’s gravel bars. Rich Nawa photo.

Last year a miner at the Green Bridge area on the segment of the river open to mining twice threatened the public with a gun who were in the area of the mining claim.[2]

Miner threatens public with gun for crossing his claim at the Green Bridge.

Mining renders Illinois River Recreation Plan meaningless: The Forest Service has the authority to, at the very least, require that miners on the Scenic River Area of the Illinois—who don’t want to comply with the Wild and Scenic River Recreation Plan and who impact the river’s outstandingly remarkable values like water quality—to submit a mining plan of operation for approval, but so far they’ve not done this.  In fact, miners don’t even have to notify the Forest Service that they’re planning to mine this National Wild and Scenic River. As a result, mining activities are essentially unregulated by the Forest Service and many miners pretty much do as they please rendering the Wild and Scenic River’s Recreation Plan meaningless on the part of the river that’s open to the 1872 Mining Law.

Lessons learned: While miners might rue the day, back in 1993, when the BLM renewed the withdrawal of ~ 13 miles of the Wild and Scenic Illinois, the public can be thankful they did and at the same time point out the grave error the agency made by re-opening the upper part of the Scenic River to mining.

Click on article for a readable version.

The article discusses why the  13 miles withdrawal was needed. These same reasons apply to the upper four miles. Almost immediately, the Forest Service’s Minerals and Recreation Staff Officer, Mike Cooley, rued the day when this stretch of river was re-opened to the Mining Law

Cooley said that looking back on it now, he wonders if the Siskiyou [National Forest] should have recommended withdrawal for the upper section of the Illinois … “If we were to do it today, we might just recommend it all (for withdrawal).”

Grants Pass Daily Courier, May 8, 1993.

Conclusion: Time has demonstrated that the Forest Service, in 1991, should have asked that the entire Scenic River Area of the Illinois remain withdrawn from the Mining Law. We hope the Forest Service and the Secretary of Interior keep this lesson in mind as they make recommendations for the temporary administrative withdrawal for ~17 miles of the National Wild and Scenic Chetco River and we hope Congress is also paying attention to the lessons of the Illinois River as they consider the Chetco River Protection Act.

Jack Williams and Mike Dombeck are some of the most respected fisheries scientists in their field. Jack Williams is a former supervisor of the Rogue River Siskiyou National Forest and the Senior Scientist for Trout Unlimited. Mike Dombeck is the former Chief of the National Forest System and former Director of the Bureau of Land Management. He’s currently on the Board of Directors of Trout Unlimited. During their many years of public service, both have experienced the conflict and impacts that result from mining in sensitive, otherwise protected areas of public lands and why mineral withdrawals are so important.

Miners aren’t even complying with Oregon’s minimal requirements for instream suction dredge mining: To follow are photos provided by Rogue Riverkeepers and Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center that show miners on the National Wild and Scenic Illinois River violating the terms of the State of Oregon’s 700 PM permit for small scale instream mining.

Mining into the streambank which is not allowed under Oregon’s 700 PM permit. Rogue Riverkeeper photo.


The bank mining creates a long sediment plume of fine silt, which also violates the terms of the 700 PM permit. Rogue Riverkeeper photo.
Under the State of Oregon’s 700 PM permit fuel must be stored at least 25 feet from the stream. Rogue Riverkeeper photo.


[1] We believe that the mining that’s occurring on the National Wild and Scenic Illinois River is in violation of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which requires the managing agency to “protect and enhance” a designated river’s “outstandingly remarkable values.” The Illinois River’s ORV are: Water Quality, Fish, Scenic, Recreation and Botanical.

[2] Locally miner’s often post their claims with “No Trespassing” signs, claiming that the mining law give them an “exclusive right of possession.” However, it is well established in law that unless a mining claim has been patented under provisions of the 1872 Mining Law the title to the surface remains with the federal government. The Multiple Surface Act of July 23, 1955 (30 USC 26; 17 Stat. 91) allows the federal government to manage the surface resource of mining claims, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held in United States v. Curtis-Nevada Mines, Inc., 611 F2d 1277 (1980) that the general public has the right to enter the surface of unpatented mining claims.


Thanks to Rich Nawa, Rogue Riverkeeper and Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center for many of the photographs illustrating this post.

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