How An 1872 Law Makes Mining Possible In Wilderness Areas

Jan 9, 2015

The U.S. Forest Service is asking for public comment on plans to build a road and bring drilling equipment to a remote area of Idaho's Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.

American Independence Mines and Mineral Company wants to turn a profit on gold ore near Big Creek on the Payette National Forest.

But the question being put to the public is not whether the mine should be allowed to go forward. Because of an 1872 law, it’s perfectly legal to mine in areas that are now designated as wilderness.

University of Idaho professor emeritus Jay O’Laughlin says this is just one compromise under the 1964 Wilderness Act.

“Long before there was the idea of creating wilderness in central Idaho there were gold mines out there, there was cattle being grazed out there," says O'Laughlin. "There were airstrips.”

O’Laughlin says he knows a lot of people might not like the idea of having a mine in the Frank Church. But passing the Wilderness Act 50 years ago meant allowing existing uses to continue – including mining.

"All of this seems antithetical to the idea of wilderness, until you realize wilderness is not created without compromise.”

But there’s still a chance this operation won’t go forward. O’Laughlin says if the public insists on a high level of environmental standards the Forest Service could deem the mine unprofitable before it even starts.

There have been attempts made to revise the 1872 mining law in Congress, but O’Laughlin doesn’t see it changing anytime soon.

The public comment period ends February 23.

Find reporter Frankie Barnhill on Twitter @FABarnhill

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