American Rivers has named three Northwest streams to its list of 10 “most endangered rivers” in the United States this year.
The advocacy group says Canadian coal mining operations threaten the Kootenai River in northern Idaho and Montana. It contends that exploration for nickel threatens two southwestern Oregon creeks, Rough and Ready and Baldface creeks.
Zach Collier, the owner of Northwest Rafting Co, is one of few people who has paddled down both creeks, which cut through through the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains. American Rivers combined them as the 8th most endangered river in 2013.
“Being able to float down the river and see my shadow at the bottom, that’s what makes these places special,” Collier says.
The mountains the creeks flow through are among the few places in the world with large areas of soil composed of serpentine and peridotite, an unusual type of metomorphic rock.
Collier says the unusual geology surrounding Rough and Ready Creek and Baldface Creek creates clear pools and interesting interesting rapids. Rare native plants have adapted to the harsh serpentine soils.
“Floating down either one of these creeks, you would run a rapid, catch an eddy, and you would be right next to a carnivorous plant, and float down by Port Orford cedars which are a very rare tree,” he says.
Rough and Ready Creek is a tributary of the Illinois River. Baldface Creek flows through a remote, virtually roadless area a few miles from Oregon’s border with California. It feeds into the North fork of the Smith River.
The same serpentine geology that makes the area a playground for botanists and paddlers has also attracted miners to the area for more than a century. Serpentine soils have high concentrations of rare minerals like nickel and chromium.
American Rivers says a local miner has submitted a new plan to mine nickel and build a smelter along Rough & Ready Creek.
A second company, Red Flat Nickel, recently proposed drilling exploratory wells to evaluate nickel deposits at two sites in the Rogue River Siskiyou National Forest, including one site along Baldface creek. Red Flat Nickel Corp. is owned by a British investment group. An attorney who represents the company said it could not immediately comment, due to the time difference.
Laura Skaer, Executive Director of the Northwest Mining Association, said the environmental impacts of mineral exploration are much less than a full blown mining operation. She cautions that environmentalists shouldn’t assume all exploration will lead to a mine.
“Generally it takes a lot of exploration drilling before a company can decide whether or not there’s enough of a mineral there that they could mine it at a profit.”
American Rivers says it will lobby Congress to withdraw Rough and Ready Creek and Baldface Creek from mineral entry under the 1872 Mining Act, a move that would block new mining claims and require existing claim holders to prove their claims are valuable, or risk losing them. Oregon Sens Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley have twice petitioned the Obama administration to remove the creeks from mineral entry.
Skaer says it may be appropriate to remove some special places from mineral entry, but thinks it should only happen after a thorough mineral survey has taken place.
“Economically viable mineral deposits are very rare, hard to find, and they are where they are. They can’t be moved,” she says.
Skaer says nickel is considered a strategic mineral because of its role in the process of making stainless steel.
According to American Rivers, the Kotenai River’s 9th most endangered status is due to coal mining in British Columbia. The group says large scale, open pit mines are currently degrading water quality and impacting fisheries and other aquatic life in the Elk River in British Columbia, which flows into the headwaters of the Kootenai River.
The river listed by the conservation advocacy group as most endangered: the southwest’s Colorado River. American Rivers said dams and overuse are the biggest threats to the river ecosystem.
American Rivers issues its list of endangered rivers annually. Typically the waterways on the list are also the focus of lobbying by the group around issues that include lobbying, hydropower or pollution. The list frequently contains one or more streams in the Northwest. Last year, the list included Washington state’s Skykomish River.
In previous years the list has included Washington’s Elwha and White Salmon rivers, Oregon’s Willamette and Chetco rivers, and the Snake River, which runs along the border of Oregon and Idaho and flows through southeastern Washington before reaching the Columbia.
View Kootenai, Rough & Ready, Baldface in a larger map