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The Snake River's fish are struggling, and an upstream mine is another threat


Joseph Canyon looming above Joseph Creek, incredible fish habitat and an important tributary to the Grande Ronde River. Photo by Leon Werdinger.

At GHCC, we value connectivity: between people, between people and place, and between landscapes. Connectivity leads to strength and resilience in our lives and our ecosystems. It also means when one part of that web is impacted, the rest feels the effects.


Mindful of this fact, we recently submitted comments opposing the Stibnite Gold Project (SGP), a renewed effort to mine gold and antimony on public lands in Idaho near the headwaters of the South Fork Salmon River. This project has the potential to harm the entire Salmon River watershed, a very important tributary to the Snake River that forms the eastern boundary of the Greater Hells Canyon Region.

A map of GHCC’s mission area.

Our mission area can be broadly defined as the eastern 2/3rds of the Blue Mountains ecoregion in Northeast Oregon, Southeast Washington, and Western Idaho, including the full extent of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. When it comes to projects with watershed-wide impacts, such as the Stibnite Gold Project, it behooves us to pay attention when things are going on upstream of us.

A screenshot of the rough location of the Stibnite Gold Project and everything downstream of it. Map from USGS Streamer.

Stibnite would utilize open pit mines and cyanide leaching to extract gold and antimony at the headwaters of the river – so consider for a moment the path cyanide would take through the watershed if the mine leaked. Cyanide, which is lethal to humans and other species even in small doses, would enter the East Fork South Fork Salmon River, and poison the resilient remnant populations of bull trout, Chinook salmon, cutthroat trout, and steelhead that have continued to make a life there. It would continue into the mainstem Salmon River, visiting the recreation hub of Riggins and its fish guides and raft companies.


Continuing downstream, it would arrive in Hells Canyon, impacting fish returning to their homes in the Grande Ronde, the Imnaha, the John Day, and many other watersheds throughout the lower reaches of the Columbia River basin. To reach the Grande Ronde, anadromous fish have already survived over 400 upstream miles and eight dams with their blistering slackwater reservoirs. Encountering cyanide certainly won’t help their chances of survival.

Habitat in the Grande Ronde Watershed, upstream from its confluence with the Snake River. Map from USGS Streamer.

Our habitat is connected

As is true with most things in the natural world, fish populations throughout the Snake River basin are inherently connected. Salmon and steelhead may have strong ties to their natal (birth) watersheds, but they also have evolved with a built-in “insurance policy” - habitat that may be empty or disconnected at the moment (due to dams, volcanic eruptions, landslides, and any number of other disturbances) can be recolonized by “straying” fish. Straying allows fish to disperse from their natal streams and establish themselves in new habitats.


Fish from different watersheds may also have unique genetics - an important factor in maintaining biodiversity throughout the region. In the face of an uncertain future, and with fish runs facing catastrophic declines, it’s imperative that we do all we can to ensure that a diversity of fish populations and their required habitat throughout the basin are protected. We never know when we might need each other.


An Environmental Justice Issue

By submitting comments on this project, we aim to support the Nez Perce Tribe, whose tribal government has made it clear that this project would further harm their treaty rights. Despite the federal government’s several recent declarations that agencies will work to protect Indigenous communities, the Forest Service’s own assessment of the mine said that it will create “adverse impacts to tribal rights and interests under either alternative, including preventing access to traditional lands, harming traditional fishing and hunting rights, impacting endangered salmon and concerns that it would harm the tribe’s salmon restoration efforts.”


This is echoed by the Nez Perce Tribe, who in response to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the project, said this:


“The Tribe's treaty-reserved rights to fish, hunt, and gather presumes access to, and the continued existence of, those resources. Thus, the 1855 Treaty secures to the Tribe the continued existence of those biological conditions necessary for the resources that are the subject matter of the treaty. Harm to habitat for treaty-reserved resources directly harms the Nez Perce people. The Tribe is concerned that the Project will further degrade habitat and treaty-reserved resources in the Forest. Additionally, the Tribe is concerned that the Project will undo some of the Tribe's work to protect, manage, and restore its resources.”


This area was already mined once, and the Nez Perce Tribe has invested significant time and resources to restore habitat there. Thanks to their efforts and to the resiliency of fish, the area is still home to bull trout, Chinook salmon, cutthroat trout, and steelhead. But a renewed effort at mining could push those populations to extinction.


Who else is paying attention and what’s next?

GHCC is not leading this issue. We are a backup singer in this choir, acting in solidarity with the Nez Perce Tribe, Save the South Fork Salmon, and many others who have been working on this issue for decades.


The public comment period closed on January 10th and garnered over 18,000 comments. Now we wait to see how the Forest Service responds to those comments, and how they’ll move forward. We’ll be looking to Save the South Fork Salmon for updates, and you can too at https://savethesouthforksalmon.com/


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