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What's Theirs is Mines

For economic future, Eastern Oregon looks to its past
More mining in eastern Oregon could hurt Sage Grouse habitat. Photo: US Fish and WIldlife Service.
More mining in eastern Oregon could hurt Sage Grouse habitat. Photo: US Fish and WIldlife Service.

Chance Dewitt is sowing grass seed on a farm outside his hometown of Lebanon, Oregon. But this isn’t where he makes a living. After a week at home, he’ll be flying back to Elko, Nevada, and working 12-hour shifts for two weeks straight mining gold amidst the arid sagebrush landscape there.

For Dewitt and his co-workers, most of whom are from Western states other than Nevada, the gold mines are an excellent opportunity to make good money in a hurry. Dewitt says that for him, “it’s not a career, it’s just a job that pays a lot.” The pay is about $17 an hour, but the long hours, overtime and per diem all add up to a significant payday.

Jobs like Dewitt’s could soon be coming to eastern Oregon, after the passage of Senate Bill 644, which awaits Gov. Kate Brown’s signature after passing by significant margins in both houses of the Oregon Legislature last week. The bill streamlines the permitting process for large-scale mines and changes land use laws in Baker, Grant, Harney, Lake, Malheur, Union and Wallowa counties.

However, the new land use regulations set up potential conflicts between mining and agriculture because the regulations allow mining as a pre-approved land use on zoned agricultural land. Conservationists also worry that new mining activities could harm threatened species and pollute an important migratory corridor for many bird species.

Under current rules, mining permits have to go through state and local review. The new legislation combines state and local land use into one process overseen by the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries (DOGAMI). While local input will still be part of the process, county planners can no longer deny permits for mines solely because they conflict with agricultural uses.

The legislation stems in part from a 2016 report by DOGAMI that found significant mining potential for gold, silver and other metals in eastern and southern Oregon.

 

Agriculture versus Mining

Commissioner Jack Howard of Union County says he was glad the bill focuses on job creation, but that it could set up a dangerous precedent of competing land use goals between counties and the state. In an email to EW, Howard writes that he is concerned “it may be that we’ve moved from taking away the overreach of statewide planning to an inability for local governments to actually have a full range of discretion to deny a local application.” 

Bill Harvey, the chairman of the Baker County Board of Commissioners, says he supports the bill and welcomes more mining in eastern Oregon. “Historically, mining is how the economy started out in Baker,” Harvey says. 

According to DOGAMI, mining claims were made in Baker as early as 1862.

“Each county should have their own say,” Harvey says. “We know our land and we know what we can and cannot do.”

Harvey says he doesn’t think mining will conflict with agriculture because the best mining sites are on rocky hillsides and not in the valleys where most farming takes place. Eastern Oregon county commissioners contacted for this story were in favor of the bill and promoted investments in mining in eastern Oregon, though some had reservations about the impact the new rules could have on ranchers and farmers.

Agricultural interests including the Oregon Farm Bureau, Harney County Farm Bureau and Grant County Farm Bureau have expressed worries that the new laws could create conflicts between mines and agriculture, which is the backbone of the economy in eastern Oregon.

The public policy counsel for the Oregon Farm Bureau, Mary Anne Nash, says OFB is generally supportive of mining but would prefer to see better-defined rules to avoid impacts to farmland. OFB would rather see conflicts mitigated in the first place than see mining companies pay neighbors, as provisions in the bill allow. 

“We need to make sure we’re protecting farmers and ranchers in the process,” Nash says. “Bring on the jobs, but make sure they’re not displacing the existing jobs.” 

 

Environmental Impacts

The proposed Grassy Mountain mine in Malheur County has an anticipated deposit of more than a million ounces of gold and four million ounces of silver, which the Nevada-based Paramount Gold mining company values at over $100 million after taxes. According to the company’s environmental baseline study, the underground mine and on-site processing facilities would disturb roughly 400 acres. 

Dave Hunnicutt, who lobbied for the bill on behalf of the Oregon Mining Association, says that mining is “by far the most heavily regulated natural resource use and pays the highest wages.”

“We can do it the Oregon way and do it with our environmental regulations,” Hunnicutt says, “or we can keep importing and pretending like things aren’t being mined because we don’t like it.”

Though Oregon does have an extensive review process for mining permits, inspection and enforcement of permits remains a major concern. According to Ali Hansen, the communications director for DOGAMI, the agency has five staff statewide responsible for inspection of approximately 900 mines. None of these five individuals are full-time inspectors.

Eugene Sen. Floyd Prozanski, one of four state senators to vote against the bill, raised concerns about the legislation’s impact on greater sage grouse habitat. While bill co-sponsor Republican Sen. Fred Girod emphasized in the reading of the bill that current sage grouse protections will be honored, Prozanski says he’s concerned the bill isn’t responsive to future changes in sage grouse management. 

Prozanski says he has reservations that the bill allows a different land use program for the seven counties that could lock in current rules and block future protections for sage grouse.

Mines and the roads required to service them could have lasting impacts on habitat for plants and animals in eastern Oregon. Water demands of the mines could also lead to diminished lake and groundwater levels, which could affect migratory birds that utilize the lakes as well as farmers and ranchers that depend on groundwater for irrigation.

The Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) opposes the bill and argues: “The risk to years of conservation effort is not warranted when a major mining project such as that envisioned in SB 644 already has feasible pathways for reasonable and thoughtful permitting through existing law.”

ONDA argues the new process could become more complicated and less effective in minimizing the harm of mining. “Without appropriate safeguards the result is all-too-often the long-term degradation of the environment and impacts to human health, safety and well-being.”

For 21-year-old miner Chance Dewitt, new mines “would be good for eastern Oregon as far as there’s a lot of people and a lot of money in the industry.” 

However, he does foresee some complications with bringing big mining to eastern Oregon. “I could see how it could not go over all that smooth at the bars,” Dewitt says.