As the story goes, King Midas of Phrygia lived a life of abundant luxury. He ruled over his kingdom from a great castle, filled with all the riches a man could ever dream of. A materialistic man, Midas centered his happiness around his impressive collection of gold. One day while out walking through his rose garden, Midas happened upon a drunken and sickly Satyr. Midas, recognizing the Satyr as one of the God Dionysus’ good friends, brought him into his castle and nursed him back to health.
Dionysus, Greek God of wine, fertility, and ecstasy (seems like a fun guy), was thrilled to have his friend back in good health. To show his gratitude, he offered to grant King Midas one wish of his choosing. Immediately and almost without thinking, Midas wished that everything he touched would turn to gold. Dionysus granted the wish gladly.
Midas, thrilled with his newfound power, quickly began exploring the limitations of the gift. He ran through his castle, handling any random objects in sight. As promised, they all turned to gold. He ordered his servants to prepare him a great feast to celebrate. Midas sat down in his golden chair at his golden dinner table and began to eat. He reached for a vine of grapes, which were transformed into solid gold the moment he laid his fingers on them. He picked up his bread, which also metalized upon contact with his magical hands. Frustrated, Midas lifted his glass of wine and began to drink. This, too, turned to solid gold the moment it touched his lips. King Midas spiraled into a storm of rage as he began to realize the implications of his great gift. His beautiful daughter, pride of Midas’ life, entered the room and he ran to hug her, seeking comfort in her embrace. The moment his arms wrapped around her, she too turned to solid gold. Midas was devastated. His greed had destroyed everything in his life that he held dear.
This story and its many re-tellings offer a simple lesson to readers: be wary of man’s undying greed for money and power. The fable of King Midas has been retold through countless events throughout history, and each time, the lesson rings true. This story and its moral can be applied quite seamlessly to one very unfortunately-named Canadian Mining company—Midas Gold.
Midas Gold Incorporated, like many modern mining companies, is headquartered in Canada due to the relaxed and compliant nature of Canada’s government when it comes to disclosures related to mining practices (nearly 75% of the world’s mining companies call Canada “home”). Mining companies frequently headquarter in Canada, where it’s easy to exploit the minimal regulations in place. Once these mining companies have established headquarters in the land of maple, they are able to open mines all over the world and make incredible amounts of profit. Midas Gold follows this template to a tee.
Midas’ current and first actual mining project, the Stibnite Mine, is located in Central Idaho near the town of Yellow Pine roughly 100 miles away from Boise. Stibnite has a complicated and storied history as a rich mining zone, with its original claims being laid in the late 1800s. Throughout the early 1900s Stibnite was mined by a few different parties, and by 1932 Bradley Mining Company had set up shop as a legitimate mining operation. Stibnite was critical to the United States’ war effort through WWII, with 90% of the antimony and 50% of the Tungsten used in the war coming from the mine. Rich with gold, silver, tungsten, and antimony, the area was actively mined all the way up until 1966.
Stibnite is precariously located in the headwaters of the South Fork of the Salmon River drainage, with the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon River flowing directly through the center of the site. The South Fork of the Salmon drainage as a whole accounts for a large chunk of Idaho’s chinook salmon and steelhead spawning habitat, and also provides critical habitat for resident bull and cutthroat trout. While the South Fork of the Salmon is often overshadowed by its neighboring river, the Middle Fork of the Salmon, the ecosystems are actually very similar. The main difference – the Middle Fork is protected by the wild and scenic rivers act and is sheltered within the Frank Church Wilderness while the South Fork is not afforded those same protections. Although the South Fork meets every criteria necessary to be listed as a wild and scenic river, there has been minimal legislative success in trying to protect it under the act. This is in part due to the monetary value found in its headwaters.
What was once a prolific salmon and steelhead fishery was nearly destroyed by reckless mining practices of the past. Since mining began in the 1800s, the South Fork of the Salmon drainage has been plagued with high levels of mercury, arsenic, and antimony, poisoning its many tributaries. After mining operations ceased in the ‘60s, the watershed entered a long restorative process. Aided by support from the Nez Perce Tribe and other conservation organizations, the watershed has been able to make an impressive comeback. Today, bull and cutthroat populations are some of the healthiest in the state, and portions of the critical salmonid spawning habitat found in the watershed are still in pristine condition. Midas Gold threatens to destroy all of it.
Midas has coined the propagandistic slogan “Restore The Site” in an effective yet untransparent outreach campaign. They advertise their “environmentally-driven” staff, their desire to “leave the site better than they found it,” and how their presence in the area will actually be beneficial to the well-being of the ecosystem. What they aren’t so quick to advertise, however, is that the plans they have in place involve altering the course of a free-flowing East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon River by diverting it through a mile-long tunnel in the ground, burying critical bull trout spawning habitat under 330 feet of toxic mine tailings, building a new access road that borders the Frank Church Wilderness and runs through some of Idaho’s most avalanche-prone terrain, and digging two new open-pit mines.
The East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon flows directly through an open pit left over from previous mining, forming a huge pond. The headwaters of the East Fork, located above the pit, were once populated each year by hundreds of chinook salmon and steelhead returning to spawn. However, the stream flowing into the pit is now too steep for fish to navigate, leaving the headwaters effectively sterile. Midas’ plan to right this wrong is to divert the East Fork through a mile-long “fish tunnel,” which will, in theory, give the fish access to their historic spawning grounds during mining operations. There has been minimal if any, scientific consistency in favor of this idea actually working. It has never been tried before. If all goes according to plan, Midas claims they will be able to restore the East Fork to its historical gradient once mining operations are complete.
Midas has also proposed a brand new access road that borders the Frank Church Wilderness (a portion of the largest area of wilderness in the lower 48). This new route cuts directly through critical elk migration paths and takes equal, if not greater, amounts of risk than the one in place. The road, which will navigate the divide between the South Fork and Middle Fork’s drainages, runs through some of Idaho’s most avalanche prone terrain.
Midas’ current plan for tailings storage (waste rock that comes out of the mine) happens to be directly on top of Meadow Creek, a spawning stream for bull trout. Each year, resident bull trout of the South Fork watershed make their way into the small streams of the headwaters to spawn. Hundreds of fish return to the East Fork South Fork Salmon River and its tributaries each year. Midas wants to bury Meadow Creek under millions of tons of toxic mine tailings, 330 feet high. This would destroy Meadow Creek forever.
Not only does Midas hope to re-mine the Stibnite Pit, but they also plan on digging two new pits of similar size in other parts of the region. Historic mining has shown what these open pit mines can do to the ecosystem, and the skeptic in me is doubtful that Midas will be able to successfully mine all of their proposed pits without negatively altering the watershed and overall ecosystem for decades. Midas promises that they will “correct the damage of the past” while simultaneously tripling the mining footprint in the area—a claim that seems just too good to be true.
The risk of disaster at the Stibnite site in particular is far too great. Not only would Midas’ best-case scenario have extreme adverse effects on the ecosystem, but when you factor in all of the risk that comes with human error or natural disasters, the probability of ecological degradation skyrockets. In the USA, 70% of all gold mines poison the area’s water supply. Midas is no exception. Between the frequent avalanches in the area every winter, the one-lane dirt roads used to move truckloads of mine tailings, and the fragility of the South Fork of the Salmon watershed, the probability of a chemical spill into the drainage isn’t just possible, it’s likely. If and when a truck does drive into the upper East Fork, or an avalanche blows out the Stibnite road, or an earthquake destroys or compromises the tailings dam, the entire South Fork of the Salmon watershed could be poisoned for decades.
Midas threatens to undo the hard work of so many for the profit of so few. The Nez Perce Tribe’s Department of Fisheries Resources Management spends approximately 2.5$ million a year on fisheries research, watershed restoration, and hatchery supplementation in the South Fork of the Salmon drainage. This is all on top of countless other conservation organizations dedicating time and energy to cleaning up the site. Reopening the Stibnite mine would undoubtedly negate decades of work and millions of dollars spent restoring the South Fork watershed.
As of August 2020, Midas is in the final stages of their permitting process. Just this week, a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) was released—one of the final legal documents in Midas’ fight for permitting. In common practice, the US Forest Service authors this document weighing the possible environmental threats of mining operations on a case-to-case basis. However, in this case, Midas Gold has been granted permission to author a portion of the DEIS’ Biological Assessment. If it seems strange to allow a mining company to author a document examining the potential risk that said mining company poses to the environment, it’s because it is. Very rarely, if ever, are same party organizations allowed to compose portions of their own DEIS. Four years ago Midas had requested permission to conduct the fisheries analysis portion of their own Biological Assessment and were denied by the Forest Service. They then applied more pressure and were granted permission on their second request (2016’s change in US presidential administration certainly didn’t hurt their cause).
Now that the DEIS has been published, a 75 day public comment period will follow. This comment period allows any members of the public to learn about the DEIS and provide feedback to the Forest Service and to Midas. For those in opposition to the mine, this comment period will be a crucial opportunity to delay— or even stop entirely—Midas’ permitting process. Once the comment period closes, the US Forest Service will work with Midas to shape a Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS), which will then be handed off to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for evaluation. Pending a decision from the EPA, Midas will either be granted or denied permission to begin mining operations. If they get the permitting they are after, Midas will occupy Stibnite for nearly three decades, extract 16$ billion (with a capital B) in gold, and risk destroying one of Idaho’s most pristine watersheds forever.
King Midas learned his lesson the hard way. His wish was granted—all that he touched turned to gold, but at a supreme cost. King Midas’ touch rendered everything that came into contact with it lifeless, purposeless, and completely worthless aside from its monetary value. He might as well have turned it all to dust. It is my hope that Midas Gold Incorporated won’t be allowed to follow its namesake too closely. If they are permitted to begin mining operations, they will leave the watershed lifeless, purposeless, and soulless. They will destroy a living, breathing, thriving ecosystem and leave millions of tons of toxic waste rock in its place. While an elite few profit from this exploitation, the many—salmon and steelhead, bull trout, the ecosystem as a whole, indigenous peoples, anglers, and recreationists—must pay the price of man’s undying greed for money and power.
What can be done to protect the South Fork of the Salmon? The public comment period will be the most efficient way to generate momentum in favor of protecting the ecosystem. If you are interested in taking action, please consider asking for an extension of the public comment period by emailing Forest Supervisor Linda Jackson (firstname.lastname@example.org) and requesting a 120 day comment period. This extension is more than reasonable as the DEIS is thousands of pages long. In order to allow all members of the public to digest and formulate opinions on the DEIS, a comment period of only 75 days is insufficient. Now that the comment period is open, the best way to take action for the South Fork watershed will be to submit a comment. It is imperative that conservationists and anglers generate as much momentum as possible in opposition with Midas Gold, and there is no better time than right now. Written comments can be submitted online via the US Forest Service Website, or by mail. Due to current circumstances regarding Covid-19, it is unlikely that the option to comment at a public hearing will be available, though there may be monthly conferences by phone. Comments must be submitted no later than October 28th. To learn more about how to write effective comments for conservation, please visit www.idahoconservation.org, www.idahorivers.org, www.digforthetruth.org, or www.savethesouthforksalmon.com.