Missoulian editorial on the Rock Creek mine

Protect the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness from Mining
Missoulian Guest Column By Mary Crowe Costello September 17, 2014

There has been a lot of press concerning the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act. Montana has a rich wilderness history and it’s appropriate we take stock of what has been preserved under this half-a-century-old law. Accordingly, the University of Montana Mansfield conference, a Monte Dolack poster and countless celebrations are commemorating this anniversary.

Among Montana’s finest wilderness areas is the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness in the northwestern corner of the state. Teddy Roosevelt was the first to recognize the special nature of this place when he created the “Cabinet Forest Reserve” in 1907. Then, in 1935, the Forest Service dedicated this area for the purpose of “inspirational and other recreational enjoyment of future generations.” It is no surprise that the Cabinets eventually became one of the first areas designated in 1964.

The dialogue on wilderness should include the threats faced by today’s wilderness areas. What’s not commonly known is that to satisfy mining interests, a provision was inserted into the Wilderness Act that allowed claims to be staked in wilderness areas from 1964 to 1984. That compromise means that the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness is facing an imminent threat from two massive mining operations that would extract ore from beneath its lands and lakes. In the next six months, the Kootenai National Forest is poised to issue permits for both the Rock Creek and Montanore mines. No wilderness is more at risk.

Despite the mining provision that came after years of debate, the intent of Congress in passing the act was to “secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.” The act defined “Wilderness,” as a place that is untrammeled, undeveloped, natural and with opportunities for solitude and primitive recreation.

What would large-scale mining mean for the 94,272-acre Cabinet Mountains Wilderness (the only wilderness in the Kootenai National Forest)? This Wilderness would no longer be untrammeled, undeveloped, natural or a place of solitude.

A loss of solitude and aesthetics would occur from constant noise, vibrations from blasting, industrial lighting and facilities, and a large volume of truck traffic. Sound levels would exceed that of a jet aircraft. A huge fan would be installed on the slope of St. Paul Peak in the wilderness to provide ventilation for the underground mine. This would be a highly visible and noisy structure seen and heard by some visitors to the wilderness.

It is predicted that long-term (1,300 years) and nearly complete dewatering of wilderness streams, including the East Fork of Bull River and the East Fork of Rock Creek, would occur from the diversion of regional groundwater into the underground mine cavities. Both streams are critically important for bull trout. In addition, Rock Lake and St. Paul Lake, two of the most popular hiking destinations in the wilderness, would be drained or slowly dried up. The water table surrounding Rock Lake would be overed by more than 1,000 feet. St. Paul Lake would dry become a shallow pond in the summer.

Fish and wildlife including bull trout, mountain goats, wolverines, lynx and bears would be impacted. The collective loss of untold acres of grizzly bear habitat would be the death knell for the small population of bears in this wilderness. What species is more iconic of Montana wilderness than the grizzly bear?

The Cabinet Mountains Wilderness is about to be sacrificed to the mining industry. Those who care about the future of wilderness must speak up before it’s too late. No better tribute could be paid to the Wilderness Act than keeping one of the first designated wilderness areas free from industrial mining.

Mary Crowe Costello is executive director of the Sandpoint, Idaho-based Rock Creek Alliance, and helps run the small Montana nonprofit organization Save Our Cabinets. She lives in Trout Creek and regularly hikes, birds and backpacks in the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness.