Groups urge Merkley to back mining reform

More than two dozen mostly outdoor recreation businesses have urged U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley to support mining reform legislation now in the Senate.

"Our public lands and waterways are vital assets to our regional and local economies," they wrote in the Feb. 1 letter to the Oregon Democrat. "The Siskiyou Wild Rivers area attracts people from around the world who come to view our rare botanical wonders, fish, raft, hike and otherwise enjoy our area."Citing a 2007 study, the letter noted the Rogue River watershed's annual recreational impact was $30 million.

In a separate report, economists determined the entire economic benefit to the West Coast from the watershed's salmon and steelhead runs was at least $1.5 billion annually, the letter said.

"The rivers in our area are not only some of the most beautiful in the world, they are also a source of sustainable jobs for the local communities," said Pete Wallstrom, owner of Momentum River Expeditions in Ashland who signed on to the letter.The letter urges Merkley to join fellow Oregon U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden in cosponsoring Senate Bill 796, known as the Hardrock and Mining Reclamation Act of 2009. It would amend the Mining Act of 1872, which remains current law.

Merkley recently joined Wyden, U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio of Springfield and Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, all Democrats, in calling on the Obama administration to re-establish a temporary mining moratorium on 1 million acres in southwest Oregon.

The Clinton administration originally established the moratorium, which was dropped by the Bush administration in 2001.

The call for a moratorium was prompted by last summer's arrest and subsequent conviction of Gold Hill miner Clifford Tracy for illegal mining activity in the upper Sucker Creek drainage in the Illinois Valley.

But not everyone agrees with the proposed mining moratorium. The local mining community, citing increased costs of mining, has spoken out against efforts to bring back the moratorium or reform the 1872 law.

"I fear for our industry," said longtime Illinois Valley miner Walt Freeman in a public meeting called by miners late last year in Grants Pass. "I fear that we will become dependant of foreign powers for minerals."In November, the Josephine County Board of Commissioners voted, 2-1, against reinstating the mining moratorium. The board sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, saying "the reinstatement of the proposed withdrawal would needlessly destroy the mineral industry in Josephine County, further depressing our already depressed economy."Statewide, mines in Oregon produce about $250 million a year in raw minerals, according to Gary Lynch of the Oregon Department of Geology & Mineral Industries, citing what he said is the most recent estimate available."From there, you have a multiplier affect of at least two," he said, referring to everything from payrolls to money spent in local communities.Although DOGAMI doesn't break the figure down into regions, Oregon's southwest and northeast regions have historically provided the lion's share of mining activity in the state. There are about 1,100 mining claims, mostly for suction dredges, in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, according to the U.S. Forest Service."The mining reform legislation is more about updating mining, not shutting it down," said Sean Stevens, spokesman for Portland-based Oregon Wild, which supports the bill. "Right now we have a mining law that went into effect when mining was still wild, a time when pick axes were tools of the trade, not bulldozers like they use now. We also need a fair system to compensate taxpayers for minerals taken from public lands."Among the local business owners signing the letter to Merkley were ECHO River Trips in Grants Pass, Fly Water Travel in Ashland, Troon Vineyard in the Applegate Valley, Jefferson State Financial Group in Cave Junction, Rogue Wilderness Adventures in Merlin, Geoff's Guide Service in Grants Pass and Rivertrips Unlimited in Medford. Nationally known firms signing on included Patagonia, KEEN Footwear, Black Diamond Equipment and Clif Bar & Co.Reach Mail Tribune reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at

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