BOISE, Idaho — The Idaho Land Board approved a land lease giving a local man exclusive use of a section of the Salmon River to mine for gold.
The unanimous vote by Idaho’s statewide elected officials came after environmentalists urged them to block the plan.
Mike Conklin of Grangeville wants to use a controversial technique called suction dredge mining along a half-mile stretch of the Salmon River near Riggins. It’s a process where a miner sucks up the river bottom in search of particle-sized gold.
Miners like Conklin need two things from the state: a mining permit by the Department of Water Resources and a 5-year land lease from the Department of Lands. With the Land Board’s approval, he now has both.
Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden visited the site on Sept. 5 where Conklin intends to mine. Wasden told the other commissioners Tuesday that by offering an exclusive right, the board is protecting the land from other people wanting to mine.
The Idaho Department of Water Resources says it issued 700 permits in 2012. Not all of them suction dredge mine and only a small percentage operate in on a thirty-mile stretch of the Salmon River that allows mining.
Jonathan Oppenheimer with the Idaho Conservation League is concerned that there’s a lack of regulation to ensure a miner restores the riverbed to its original state. Oppenheimer also told the Land Board there are frequent violations of mining law.
One such law is a federal statute that requires suction dredge miners to obtain a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency. Dave Tomten with the Environmental Protection Agency in Boise said no miner on the Salmon River has applied for a permit. That means all mining is technically illegal, he said.
But Tomten also said there isn’t a permit for suction dredge mining in Idaho. They are working on that and expect to have one ready by Christmas. As of Tuesday, the EPA has never issued a penalty to any miner on the Salmon River.
That concerns Oppenheimer who told reporters Tuesday after the land board meeting that it’s possible that the EPA could close the Salmon River to dredge mining altogether once a permit is issued.
Tracy DeGering, an environmental scientist with the EPA says it’s likely a majority of Idaho Rivers would be closed to mining once they issue a general permit. But she wouldn’t say if that included the section of river Mike Conklin intends to mine.
The mining season closes on Sept. 30 in Idaho.