Feds begin challenge of N. Idaho mining claims

OROFINO, Idaho (AP) - Fishing, camping and the protection of American Indian artifacts along a northern Idaho river outweigh the desire of placer miners to search for gold, an attorney representing the U.S. Forest Service said.

The Lewiston Tribune reported that attorney Jody Miller made the argument Tuesday before an administrative law judge during an Interior Board of Land Appeals hearing.

"The United States will show placer mining on the claims will impact cultural resources in the creek, and fishing," said Miller, based at the Forest Service's Missoula, Mont., Northern Region headquarters.

The Forest Service is challenging dozens of mining claims filed on a 30-mile section of the North Fork of the Clearwater River after a flurry of claims resulted in miners posting signs warning campers to stay away from mine sites. The hearing before Administrative Law Judge Robert Holt from the U.S. Department of Interior is expected to continue through Thursday at the Clearwater County Courthouse.

Miners say they filed claims following federal laws and regulations and that the government is attempting to take their private property without compensation.

The area was once identified as a potential site for hydropower development and withdrawn from mining exploration in 1927. It was put back in play for miners with the Mining Rights Restoration Act of 1955.

But that law is not as encompassing for miners as the Mining Act of 1872. With the 1955 law, agencies such as the Forest Service can ask for a hearing before the Interior Board of Land Appeals to determine if placer mining will interfere with other uses.

Geologist Clint Hughes testified Tuesday that he prepared a lengthy report on more than 36 claims filed last year. He said his research, including samples from the claims and history of the mining area, showed none of the claims are likely to be economically viable for mining.

"I concluded there is little to no gold on these claims," he said.

But he said miners using even small-scale suction dredges could eliminate other uses of the river.

"These claims would give the claimants a superior right to be there and other forest users would be pushed out," he said.

He also said the area is relatively undisturbed concerning cultural resources from past inhabitants of the Nez Perce Tribe.

One of the miners with a claim in the area, James P. Young, questioned Hughes and disputed the economic analysis. Young also disputed the testing that found little or no gold in the area, as well as the cost Hughes placed on mining equipment and labor costs.

"My contention is these figures are completely incorrect," he said.

Judge Holt told Young that he could not make an argument while questioning the witness, but he would have a chance to give testimony later and call his own witnesses.