A Proud Legacy

By Chris Wood

TU is the patron saint of tough conservation issues.  Consider our work to clean-up abandoned mines. In 1992, I was a wet-behind-the-ears seasonal employee for the Forest Service living in a trailer at a fire camp about 15 miles outside of Boise. A friend came to visit one weekend, and we explored some of the nearby streams that flowed into the Boise River.

The effects of century-old placer mining on Mores Creek in Idaho.

Me, carrying a fly-rod, and she, a book, walked along the river.  She asked “how come all of the boulders and gravel are up on the banks?” I made a glib observation about the power of moving water.

Later, I learned that those rocks and gravel on Mores Creek were removed from the river in the 1800s by hydraulic and placer mining in the search for gold and silver.

The EPA estimates that 40 percent of all western headwater streams are affected by abandoned mines. Abandoned mines that ruin streamside areas vital for fish and that leach a toxic brew of lead, zinc, arsenic and other nastiness into rivers pose one of the most significant and least-addressed environmental problems in the West.

And the kicker, as the title of a great TU report in 2004 said, these areas were “Settled, Mined and Left Behind." No person—and no company—can be forced to clean them up because the people who created the mess are all long gone.

That problem is compounded by the fact that, unlike with other commodities such as coal or timber, there exists no dedicated funding source to clean up the leavings of western abandoned hard-rock mines on public lands.  So they sit; often adjacent to rivers. Slow-release time bombs that pollute water, harm fish and fishing, and can compromise human health.

Seven years ago, Mike Kowalski, the CEO of Tiffany & Co., the world's finest jewelry company, and the chairman of the company's foundation spoke to TU about what could be done to clean up some of these mines, and how to use that as a model to promote other cleanups.

Since then, the Tiffany & Co. Foundation has made possible abandoned mine cleanups in Utah, Colorado, Montana, Idaho, and coming soon, Nevada and Washington.

The progress?  Remarkable.

In Utah, we worked with Snowbird and the EPA to  develop a “Good Samaritan” agreement that removed liabilities that have long kept landowners, communities, mining companies, and groups such as TU from cleaning up abandoned mines. Our work to remove the toxic mine tailings, resulted in an immediate improvement of imperiled Bonneville cutthroat trout stocks in American Fork Creek, while opening the door for other restoration.

Removing tailings in a Clark Fork tributary in Montana.

Allowing fish to move upstream for the first time in 80 years.

On tributaries to the Clark Fork River in Montana, among other things, we reclaimed a 20-acre open-pit mine, and then reconnected three miles of spawning habitat for native westslope cutthroat that had been lost for 80 years.  Within days of the restoration, native cutts were moving upstream.

Kerber Creek before restoration.

Kerber Creek after construction.

In Colorado, TU volunteers and local landowners logged more than 12,000 hours and improved water quality and fish habitat for 12 miles of river.

In Idaho, where I bluffed my way through a stream walk 20 years ago, TU staff and volunteers from the Ted Trueblood chapter of TU recovered more than six miles of streamside habitat turned upside down from historic mining. More than 1,700 volunteers, mostly kids, helped plant willows and trees to filter sediment and improve an important drinking water supply for the state.

Mores Creek before restoration.

Mores Creek after restoration.

Success breeds success. We were able to leverage the initial financial investment by the Tiffany & Co. Foundation six times over because of crucial support from partners such as EPA, the Forest Service, BLM, state agencies, counties, mining companies and others.

Just in the past month, for example, the mining company, Freeport-McMoRan made a three year $350,000 commitment to TU to cleanup abandoned mines in Colorado. They had no legal or regulatory reason to do so. It is truly a "Good Samaritan" effort on their part.

And they know if they propose a mine in important trout, salmon or steelhead habitat, TU will lead the opposition. But Richard Adkerson, Freeport-McMoRan’s CEO, who is an angler and TU Coldwater Conservation Fund member, told me, “It is just the right thing to do.”  Let’s hope other mining companies follow his lead.

Trout and salmon are remarkably resilient creatures. They have withstood ice ages, glaciers, fires, industrial development, even having their homes turned upside down by historic mining. Our record of success shows that if we give them half a chance, they can, and will, recover.

And, as anglers, citizens, parents ... that matters. We have the opportunity, by cleaning up the mistakes of the past, to leave behind clean water and healthy fisheries for our children to enjoy that wouldn’t otherwise exist.

Not a bad legacy.

Chris Wood is the president and CEO of Trout Unlimited.

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