Conservation Through Collaboration and Conversation
NOTE: In the November 22 edition of the Sanders County Ledger, an article beginning on page 13 erroneously stated that Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness supported Revett Mineral’s proposed mine in Rock Creek at the south end of the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness. In the November 29 issue, on the back page of the second section, the Ledger printed a letter to the editor clarifying the FSPW position on Rock Creek. Partly because of the misinformation in the November 22 Ledger, FSPW board and staff feel it is an important and appropriate time to explain the FSPW position on issues relating to collaboration and multiple use in and around the Scotchman Peaks.
Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness (FSPW) has a narrowly focused mission – to preserve the wilderness character of the Scotchman Peaks. Our supporters come from a broad variety of backgrounds with diverse perspectives and interests in natural resources. In fact, many of our supporters would not describe themselves as environmentalists, but they all agree that the Scotchman Peaks are deserving of Wilderness designation and they all see benefit in the preservation and stewardship of this special place.
Since our start in 2005, FSPW has built a broad base of support on the belief that our public lands can be managed for true multiple use. This includes Wilderness as well as timber, mining, grazing and responsible recreation (both human powered and motorized). In the 4 million acres that the Idaho Panhandle and Kootenai National Forests cover, there is room to accommodate all these uses and there are places that are appropriate for each use. In the case of the Scotchman Peaks, we feel that the highest value would be designated Wilderness.
As an organization, FSPW does not take a position on specific places or projects outside our mission’s focus. For example, we are neither for nor against the proposed Rock Creek mine near Noxon. The great diversity of our supporters makes it impossible to represent them as a unified voice on any matters other than the Scotchman Peaks and a general belief that we can find a balanced use for public lands.
Wilderness designation requires congressional action and Congress does not take action on land issues without broad public support. We must demonstrate that wilderness is supported by more folks than just conservationists. Our congressional representatives have made it clear that building local coalitions which include businesses, industries and other stakeholders is the only pathway forward.
The only new wilderness designated in either Montana or Idaho for almost the last three decades has been the Owyhee Canyonlands in southwestern Idaho. This was a wilderness bill crafted by a roundtable that included ranchers and various other stakeholders. This legislation is an example of success brought about by local collaboration and consensus building, an approach favored by the delegations from both Idaho and Montana.
Our congressmen have told us they are especially interested in what representatives from mining and timber have to say about the Scotchmans. They want us to talk to these folks and find common ground. We have been actively engaged in those conversations. As a result we are making progress in gaining broad support that includes these non-traditional allies. In the process we are finding out that we have shared values which include preserving undisturbed parts of our natural landscapes and habitat for wildlife.
As we move closer to an introduction of legislation for the Scotchmans, it is important that our supporters and the public know more about conversations we have been having with other stakeholders and the unusual levels of support that are developing.
Setting aside preconceived notions is a challenging task, but to find sustainable solutions it is important that we keep an open mind and talk with – as well listen to – people who represent different interests. While we may not agree on everything, and may have different perspectives about benefits and impacts, we have found almost everyone who lives and works in our area has a sincere desire to preserve the quality of life that we enjoy, including the quality of our environment.
Historical conflict between timber production and wilderness protection is ebbing. These days, areas suitable for wilderness are generally part of roadless areas managed by the forest service for conservation values; while the forest service manages other areas as “suitable for timber”. More and more, timber industry folks and conservationists recognize the value in taking a larger scale approach to managing public lands. In many cases, they are working together to agree on sustainable timber practices and to agree on establishing wilderness in deserving places like the Scotchman Peaks.
Collaborations throughout our region are making progress in determining what level of support environmental groups can provide for responsible timber practices as well as what level of support the timber industry may have for wilderness. FSPW is among conservation groups like the Montana Wilderness Association and the Idaho Conservation League who are taking part in the Kootenai Forest Stakeholders as well as the Panhandle Forest Collaborative. We are talking with industry leaders like Idaho Forest Group and community organizations like the Priest Community Forest Connection. We are pleased with the progress being made to find solutions resulting in sustainable timber production as well as Wilderness protection. There is more work to be done, but a growing consensus that the Scotchmans are suitable for Wilderness encourages us to continue this process.
Participants in these sorts of efforts are finding they have more in common than they thought, including common values and common interests for the community. We are proud to be a part of these conversations. This doesn’t mean that we always see eye to eye with the timber guys or even our fellow conservationists. But we do believe that dialogue is a better way to address these differences than continued conflict, which only leads to gridlock for all interests. Communities do not win when timber projects are perpetually stalled or when wilderness takes decades to pass.
We see a similar situation in the mining industry. Collaboration is an important part of securing a future where extraction and natural resource conservation can be compatible goals.
Irresponsible mining operations in the western United States have left an unfortunate legacy. Laws, policies and economics have historically encouraged development while placing a very low priority on protecting the environment. This has led to many examples where long term clean-up of mining projects has obscured short term local economic benefits. This history has also left a legacy of lessons.
The lessons taught by mining’s history have led to the development of regulations and oversight by the state and federal regulatory agencies, like the Montana State Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), which safeguard against potentially abusive practices. Citizen’s organizations also play an important role by keeping federal land managers, state regulators and the mining and timber industries accountable for their actions.
Also, watchdog groups such as the Cabinet Resource Group and the Rock Creek Alliance have formed to safeguard our public interest and public resources. CRG in particular performed an important role in monitoring the original development of the Troy mine by ASARCO to minimize its environmental impact and have been watching the performance of this mine over many years. CRG has worked steadfastly to assure that a series of mine operators understand their responsibilities in meeting important regulations and requirements. At times this has involved public pressure and lawsuits against the mine operators, DEQ and the Forest Service to ensure they are providing adequate oversight.
Many members or our community are thankful for the long-standing contributions that watchdog groups have made. Without these and other vigilant grassroots environmental organizations keeping watch, there would be no guarantees that the Scotchmans would have retained wilderness qualities or that the Troy mine’s impact would be as minimal as it has been.
The Troy mine operation, located on Stanley Creek in the Lake Creek drainage, is a neighbor of the Scotchman Peaks proposed Wilderness and a part of the landscape of the Scotchman Peaks area. The board and staff of FSPW have been in contact with current operators, Revett Minerals Inc. We and some of our partners have toured the mine, discussed its operations with Revett’s management, looked at the recent reclamation plans and studied their long term records. The operation of the Troy mine has not degraded the wilderness value of the adjacent Scotchman Peaks roadless area, nor has it detracted from the Scotchmans as a candidate for Wilderness designation. In fact, the West Cabinet Grizzly Bear augmentation uses release sites located in close proximity to mine claims.
We have found that the people who manage the mine hold many of the same values we do. They too have learned lessons from the mining industry’s past. They want a future in which the local economy is secure and wild country remains intact. We have been impressed by the sincerity of the Troy mine’s current management in the efforts they have made to address the potential environmental impact of the mine. We believe that they are working to be good neighbors in our shared West Cabinet landscape.
We must remember that when we deal with companies we also deal with people who are often our neighbors and share many of our own values. Last year at the start of a three-day backpack trip to a remote part of the Scotchmans, our small group ran into one of the mine managers. He and his wife were using the same trailhead to access their favorite part of the Scotchmans on horseback. Another one of the Revett team has remarked “I grew up in the shadow of the Cabinet Mountains wilderness and I would like my grandchildren to grow up looking up at the Scotchman Peaks wilderness too.”
Through our ongoing discussions with Revett Minerals, we are pleased to learn of their plans for the patented mining claims on top of Mt. Vernon, immediately east of the Scotchman Peaks Area. Revett has indicated their desire that these private surface rights, as well as other lands in the valley, be managed for wildlife habitat and corridor linkage once the Troy Mine reaches the end of its operating life. Revett’s commitment to a best-use of its private land holdings is in line with FSPW vision and they have recently created a foundation (The Revett Foundation) that will be responsible for pursuing long-term conservation management plans for select lands. We have a shared vision that the summit of Mount Vernon and the approximately 750 acres of re-vegetated tailings area in the Lake Creek valley will continue to serve as a crucial wildlife link between the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness and West Cabinet mountains. These long term conservation uses will help provide and maintain the “eastern gateway to the Scotchman Peaks”. This is a much-preferred alternative to the sale and use of these lands in commercial development scenarios.
We will continue to work closely with Revett on mutual objectives. It is as equally important to them, as it is to us, that their operations at the Troy Mine meet and exceed all standards; and, that they live up to their commitments to be good neighbors and stewards of the environment. FSPW looks forward to seeing today’s plans become tomorrow’s realities through the actions of Revett and The Revett Foundation.
While no mining operation can be said to have zero impact, some certainly have more or less impact than others. The fact that the Troy Mine continues to produce much-needed metal and support important jobs without a significant loss of wilderness characteristics next door is due to careful development and operation as well as some fortunate geology and an active community of local citizens groups who advocate for conservation and environmental protection.
The Troy mine footprint is small, the result of a mining operation that tunnels into the mountain rather than removing its top. The ore body is composed of rock with silver, copper and silica and very few other heavy metals, which allows the luxury of mining a relatively “clean” ore body. Most of the slurry / waste ends up as inert silica. Revett takes care to reuse much of the water seepage in operations and does not use heavy metals or chemicals in the ore separation process. Thirty years of DEQ records show the tailings pond attenuates (holds in) the trace mineralization that would harm the water quality of Lake Creek. Again, we have dedicated mine management, state regulators and citizen oversight to thank for this.
We do not want to suggest that the experience of the Troy mine can be automatically repeated at Rock Creek or elsewhere. We leave to others to figure out whether it is possible to do that and if so, how, where, when and by whom. While the law may direct answers to some of these questions, citizen watchdog groups will play an important role in ensuring that community needs and environmental protection are adequately addressed.
Many elements need to be present in good balance for the kind of success that we are seeing in the neighborhood of the Troy Mine and the Scotchmans. Hydrology, geology and especially ore bodies can be very different even when not far apart. Mining companies differ and can change for better or worse, depending on who is at the helm. State and federal laws and regulations change. Watchdog groups can emerge and fade away. FSPW as a group won’t speculate on whether the model at Troy can be used elsewhere, but there are local groups involved in those dialogues and we respect the work they are doing.
What we can say is that there is value for both the Friends of Scotchman Peaks and Revett in maintaining a supportive relationship in the West Cabinets. Our conversations with Revett are limited to the West Cabinet Mountains where we have found dialogue to be an important and useful step in addressing conservation needs.
Many people in the field of Conservation Biology speak about the need to preserve working landscapes as vital to the larger strategy of conserving species’ habitat and connectivity. To do this we must change the conversation about conservation so that it is a value embraced by all and a part of the normal practices and processes of resource development. And, we must change the conversation about resource development so that environmentalists are part of the solution of determining where and how best practices can be used to bring about sustainable, economically viable and environmentally responsible projects. We can only do this if we engage in conversation with industry stakeholders. We must find ways to make conservation and resource development compatible.
To achieve this, we must change the way we converse. We must challenge our preconceptions of who can help support conservation. We must find shared values and nurture long term commitments to our communities. Yes, we must be vigilant watchdogs, but we should recognize individuals, groups and companies when they are doing something right. The Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness is proud to be a part of this changing conversation.