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Idaho Land Board delays decision on Salmon River gold suction dredging

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BOISE, Idaho — The Idaho Land Board has voted to delay a decision on awarding a suction-dredging lease for gold on the Salmon River so commissioners can review documents submitted by the miner and a conservation group.

The board voted 5-0 on Tuesday to delay until March making a decision on Don Smith's mineral-lease application to mine the river about a mile north of Riggins.

The Idaho Department of Lands recommended the board approve the lease, but with conditions. One of those conditions requires Smith, a timber faller and part-time suction-dredge miner from Riggins, to get a federal permit required by the Clean Water Act.

"How did the state of Idaho get into enforcing federal laws?" Smith asked the commissioners.

He asked the board to delete that requirement or have state officials eliminate the federal law in Idaho.

Attorney General Lawrence Wasden — a member of the board along with Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, State Controller Brandon Woolf, Secretary of State Lawerence Denney, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra — noted that the board was an executive body and not a judicial body and didn't have the authority to alter laws.

Wasden, who made the motion to table a decision on the permit, also said giving the board extra time would allow members a chance to view the section of the river where the suction dredging would take place.

Jonathan Oppenheimer of the Idaho Conservation League asked board members not to approve the lease because of the damage commercial gold mining would cause. "There is only one Salmon River," he said.

Other requirements of the potential lease set by the Lands Department prohibit Smith from using an 8-inch suction dredge or two 5-inch suction dredges. Also, if he gets the lease, his operations and equipment must not interfere with angler access, sport fishing or navigation.

Another condition is that the river be restored to a configuration conducive to good fish and wildlife habitat, as well as recreational use.

Smith said that if he gets the lease, he anticipates averaging about a tenth of an ounce of gold a day when the dredge is operating.

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