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Cherished Redwood Region Threatened by Nickel Mines
Hidden from the usual tourist circuit, two streams of southwestern Oregon tumble down from the Siskiyou Mountains through wild canyons embossed with pines and boulder fields. These unprotected waters are now threatened by nickel mines.
They go by the hardscrabble names of Baldface and Rough and Ready, and while they lack the pizzazz of tourist marketing, they excel with native grace, and their flush of crystalline water nourishes some of the finest runs of salmon downstream—vital for sport and commercial fishing. Elegant in snowstorms, brilliant with springtime blooms, these enclaves abound with botanical curiosities such as bug-eating plants. Vegetation found nowhere else worldwide thrives in ancient red soil; botanists worldwide come just to see it.
Baldface flows into the North Fork Smith, which crosses the border to become a gem of California, breathtakingly beautiful through the heart of redwood country. Flowing off the other side of the mountains, Rough and Ready joins the Illinois—a renowned branch of the legendary Rogue and its principal nursery of imperiled coho salmon.
While the Rogue, Illinois, and Smith have enjoyed decades-long protection and thrive as designated National Wild and Scenic Rivers, our two remarkable tributaries have just kept flowing in a way that one might imagine lasting forever. But that vision of prosperity is in jeopardy.
Exploration for open-pit nickel mines is proposed for both these basins; plans are pending at the U.S. Forest Service. On Google Earth, see the abandoned nickel mine at Riddle, south of Roseburg, to realize what awaits our slice of Siskiyou paradise.
Pollution could quickly infect the Rogue and Smith. The Appalachia-style strip mining is permitted under the Mining Law of 1872—a relic of Ulysses Grant's presidency that allows miners to dig wherever they want on our public lands, exempt even from royalty payments and buffered from anti-pollution rules.
The infamous law was passed when miners were American sourdoughs swinging pickaxes, but those days are over; today's applicant at Baldface is a multinational corporation in Great Britain.
A century of work by dedicated local people and extending the whole way up to Congress has protected the Rogue and Smith, but all that could now fall victim to the price that Chinese nickel buyers are willing to pay to a corporate giant on the other side of the Atlantic.
This cherished region of Oregon and California does not have to be an impoverished and polluted resource colony of other nations. Congress can withdraw the area from mining claims, and our elected officials can pass legislation to protect these streams' fisheries and botanical treasures. This would honor the decades-long work and investments that Oregonians, Californians and taxpayers nationwide have made in safeguarding the Rogue and Smith for the health of an economy that's based on fish, recreation and thriving stable communities but not the boom, bust and permanent damage of strip mining.
The Forest Service has found both streams eligible for Wild and Scenic status. Oregon Senators Wyden (D-OR) and Merkley (D-OR) and Rep. DeFazio (D-OR) have indicated support for these waters. That initiative deserves immediate action with a bill to protect two irreplaceable gems of redwood country and the Pacific Northwest.
Tim Palmer is the author of Rivers of America, Field Guide to California Rivers, and The Wild and Scenic Rivers of America.
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Tensions are continuing to rise in Canada over a controversial pipeline project as protesters enter their 12th day blockading railways, demonstrating on streets and highways, and paralyzing the nation's rail system
Colorado River Has Lost 1.5 Billion Tons of Water to the Climate Crisis, 'Severe Water Shortages' May Follow
California is headed toward drought conditions as February, typically the state's wettest month, passes without a drop of rain. The lack of rainfall could lead to early fire conditions. With no rain predicted for the next week, it looks as if this month will be only the second time in 170 years that San Francisco has not had a drop of rain in February, according to The Weather Channel.
The last time San Francisco did not record a drop of rain in February was in 1864 as the Civil War raged.
"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."
While the Pacific Northwest has flooded from heavy rains, the southern part of the West Coast has seen one storm after another pass by. Last week, the U.S. Drought Monitor said more Californians are in drought conditions than at any time during 2019, as The Weather Channel reported.
The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.
"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.
Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.
Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.
"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.
NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.
As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.
"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.
The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.
"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."
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A warm day in winter used to be a rare and uplifting relief.
Now such days are routine reminders of climate change – all the more foreboding when they coincide with news stories about unprecedented wildfires, record-breaking "rain bombs," or the accelerated melting of polar ice sheets.
Where, then, can one turn for hope in these dark months of the year?