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Utah Congressman Seeks To Re-Open Area In SW Oregon to Mining

Credit PGHolbrook/Wikimedia Commons
North Fork Smith River, one of the waterways opponents of a nickel mine proposal say would be endangered by the project.

Attempts in recent years to open nickel mines near the headwaters of pristine creeks and rivers in southwest Oregon have faced solid opposition. In response, the Obama Administration last January withdrew 100,000 acres of federal land in the area from consideration for mining for at least 20 years.

A Republican congressman from Utah says that was illegal. He’s asked the Trump Administration to review that and all other Obama mineral withdrawals. And the foreign-owned mining company that most stands to gain is weighing in, as well.

When Ann Vileisis found out what Representative Rob Bishop had done, she was appalled.

“Oh, my gosh, I was so upset to hear the news,” she said. “So many people locally have put in so much time and effort to get the mineral withdrawal into place.”

Vileisis heads the Kalmiopsis Audubon Society in Curry County. She helped lead opposition to plans by the Red Flat Nickel Corporation to establish a nickel strip mine near the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. Opponents fear the mine would pollute the nearby salmon streams.

Rob Bishop chairs the House Natural Resources Committee. He recently sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, urging them to review the validity of all Obama-era mineral withdrawals, and the Southwestern Oregon Mineral Withdrawal, in particular. Under Obama, Bishop’s letter says, “millions of acres of Federal land were inappropriately withdrawn from mineral access due to false premises of environmental protectionism and the intentional misuse of statutory authority.”

That annoys Democratic representative Peter DeFazio from Oregon’s Fourth Congressional District.

“His letter is full of falsehoods,” DeFazio says.

For one thing, he says ….

“If legislation has been introduced, and for whatever reason it’s being delayed, then the administration is authorized to do what’s called an ‘administrative withdrawal in aid of legislation,’ with the prospect that at some future date, legislation will be passed.”

DeFazio himself has had such a bill pending for the past two sessions, a bill which Rob Bishop has kept bottled up in the Natural Resources Committee.

Senator Jeff Merkley is pretty unhappy with Bishop’s letter, too …

“Everything he was asserting is just wrong,” he says.

Contrary to Bishop’s claims, the Oregon Democrat says, there was a robust process before the withdrawal decision was made, including a series of public meetings.

“There were 45,000 comments submitted, of which an astounding 99 percent were in support of the mineral withdrawal. There was community support that included the Gold Beach City Council, and the Curry County Board of Commissioners and the Cave Junction City Council.”

Merkley, DeFazio and Oregon Senator Ron Wyden wrote a three-page letter to Zinke and Perdue, urging them to disregard what they called Bishop’s “flawed” request for a review.

Representative Bishop declined to be interviewed, but an aide said via email that if Merkley, DeFazio and Wyden are confident the withdrawal was proper, they shouldn’t fear a review.

So, why is a congressman from Utah so concerned about a mining withdrawal in Oregon? Peter DeFazio notes Rob Bishop has long supported mining and other industrial uses of public land. And according to the Center for Responsive Politics, mining interests have been among Bishop’s top ten contributors of campaign cash.

But DeFazio sees something else at work, as well, something he says is a common strategy of mining firms …

“Companies file very, very destructive claims, and then blackmail the government into buying them out. And I think that’s what’s going on here.”

JPR tried to contact the Red Flat Nickel Corporation, but they’ve proven elusive. Several entities which have represented the company in the recent past said they currently have no connection to the firm. On State of Oregon registration documents, Red Flat Nickel lists the address of the Portland law firm Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt, but an attorney there declined to confirm they represent the mining company. Registration documents filed with the State of Nevada show only one corporate officer, and list a post office box on Guernsey Island, an offshore British tax haven located in the English Channel.

Red Flat Nickel is owned by St. Peter Port Capital, an investment company based on Guernsey. Financial records show St. Peter Port has had a negative cash flow since 2013 and its most recent corporate report describes its major assets as “illiquid.” The report says shareholders voted in June to continue the company for at least one more year to try to realize some value from its holdings.

That corporate report also notes that Red Flat Nickel renewed its mining claims in southwest Oregon this summer, despite the mineral withdrawal. And, it says of Rob Bishop’s efforts, “We are encouraged that there is pressure from Congress on the federal government to review all mineral withdrawals executed during the Obama administration. It is our understanding that the present administration is increasingly keen to produce its own nickel and other strategic metals domestically …”

According to public records, Red Flat Nickel has spent $145,000 since 2015 lobbying the Senate, the US Forest Service and the Departments of Interior and Agriculture.

Ann Vileisis, with Kalmiopsis Audubon, says with all the important values at stake, she hopes the company’s influence campaign doesn’t work.

“The rivers and the fish, they’re tied to our identity,” she says. “That’s’ what’s special about our place. So to have this foreign mining company come in … It’s just not right. It doesn’t make sense.”

JPR asked the offices of the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture if they intend to follow through on Bishop’s call for a review; we got no response.

Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for three decades. He served two stints as JPR News Director and retired full-time from JPR at the end of 2021. Liam now edits and curates the news on JPR's website and digital platforms.