Op-Ed:  Drive for profit has taken S. Fork, salmon to edge of extinction

Published 2/23/2021  |  Idaho Rivers United

*Midas Gold Corp. has recently changed its name to Perpetua Resources

 Drive for profit has taken S. Fork, salmon to edge of extinction

BY KEVIN LEWIS, former IRU Executive Director, originally published in The Star News

Idaho’s South Fork Salmon River is one of Idaho’s gems. Winding through the rugged mountains east of McCall, this beautiful river, while perhaps not as well known to many recent newcomers to Idaho as the Middle Fork Salmon or Main Salmon River, it nonetheless deserves our best stewardship efforts.

Long ago, the South Fork Salmon River was once the Columbia River Basin’s flagship for populations of summer chinook salmon. But regrettably in the early part of the 20th Century, miners turned tributaries to the South Fork upside down digging for gold and other minerals, leaving a polluting and leeching poisonous waste legacy that remains to this day.

In the 1960s, with the blessing of the Forest Service, the logging industry moved into the South Fork country with its chainsaws and bulldozers, clear-cutting thousands of acres and gouging hundreds of miles of logging roads back and forth across the steep sides of the canyon.

The Forest Service and the logging industry promised this industrialization of the South Fork could be done while protecting the South Fork salmon habitat from harm. The hollowness of those promises was made clear when thousands of tons of sediment subsequently eroded into the South Fork, smothering salmon spawning beds under feet of mud.

The South Fork’s chinook salmon also took a devastating hit far downstream of the river as hydropower proponents constructed river-plugging concrete dams across the Columbia River and the lower Snake River, all the while promising Idahoans and others that salmon runs to places like the South Fork would be protected.

Again, those promises proved empty. Salmon numbers in the South Fork, and all salmon-bearing rivers in Idaho, plummeted after dam construction and today are at some of the lowest numbers ever recorded. Despite the thrashing the South Fork has endured over the past 50 years, the river continues to amaze with its resilience.

While only a fraction of what once was, the South Fork is still one of the rare rivers in Idaho that support a remaining rare assemblage of wild chinook salmon, steelhead trout, bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout, all species that could once be found extensively throughout Idaho.

No more. Nowadays, these fish hold on in only scattered fragments of the former clean, clear waters that characterized most of Idaho only a hundred years ago.

The resilience is no accident. It has been helped along by Idahoans who see the potential of a restored South Fork Salmon River and who see the “rightness” of restoring a river that has been so thoughtlessly degraded.

Many, including the Nez Perce Tribe, have worked for over two decades and invested millions of dollars to clean up the scars left by the corporate profit-seekers who descended upon the South Fork and who are now long gone.

But now a new cadre of profit-seekers with yet more promises are trooping into the South Fork country. Midas Gold has encamped on the East Fork of the South Fork, promoting a renewal in large scale mining along the river while promising to protect and clean up past mining destruction.

Midas wants to conduct at least 14 years of industrial mining on three square miles of the East Fork, digging three huge open pit mines, literally moving one mountain and changing the course of a river while dumping a million tons of toxic mine tailings in a valley in the river’s headwaters.

As always, associated with such mining are toxic pit lakes, toxic waste, cyanide, and thousands of gallons of fish-killing fuel hauled along the narrow twisting roads that parallel stream courses.

Midas has unpacked its own load of promises to Idahoans: “Mining on this enormous scale can be conducted while protecting fish habitat.” “Mining on this enormous scale can be conducted while protecting water quality.” “The land and rivers will be cleaner after they are done moving mountains and changing the course of rivers and leaving behind the tailings ponds.” Midas wants us to believe that years of profit-driven mining is supposed to leave the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon River better than it is today.

Idahoans are tired of promises for the South Fork Salmon River. Promises to protect fish and water quality have proven empty and false. The only thing that has proven true over the past 50-plus years is that the actions of private, profit-driven entities have taken the South Fork Salmon River and its salmon populations to the brink of extinction.

Midas Gold is no different. The South Fork Salmon River likely can’t survive another gamble on its future based on thin promises from those seeking to line their pockets.

(Kevin Lewis lives in Boise.)

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