River bill’s overreach

Written by Baker City Herald Editorial Board March 20, 2013 09:03 am

Oregon state Sen. Alan Bates says one of the main reasons he introduced a bill this year that would add sections of more than two dozen rivers to the state’s Scenic Waterways Program, including two in Baker County, is to protect salmon and steelhead from suction dredge mining.

Fair enough.

Except the two Baker County streams included in Bates’ Senate Bill 401 — the North Fork of Burnt River and Eagle Creek — harbor neither salmon nor steelhead.

We presume Bates, a Democrat from Ashland, is aware of the absence of those fish in the two waterways.

Yet the two rivers remain in the bill.

Nor is that the only aspect of SB 401 that troubles us.

The reach of Eagle Creek proposed for inclusion in the Scenic Waterways Program is already protected under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Congress did that in 1988, designating 4.5 miles of Eagle Creek as “wild,” 6 miles as “recreational” and 18.4 miles as “recreational.”

But there’s a significant difference between the federal act and the state law for scenic waterways: The state rules affect private property but the federal act, by and large, does not.

Critics of SB 401, and in particular miners, say the bill would greatly restrict the use of private property along streams. They make a good point.

The rules that govern streams in the Scenic Waterways System apply not only to the waterway itself, but also to the land, including private property, within one-quarter mile of either bank.

Placer mining, except for “recreational” mining, is prohibited in that zone. And private property owners must consult with the state before doing any of several things, including logging or constructing new buildings.

These restrictions could cause major problems for property owners, especially along the North Fork of Burnt River, which flows through several miles of privately owned pastures where cattle graze. The river also is the subject of an ongoing legal case about whether mining should be allowed on public land.

Additional protections for some reaches of Oregon rivers might well be appropriate. But neither the North Fork of Burnt River nor Eagle Creek qualifies, and both should be deleted from SB 401.