Credit the “East Fork Brigade” with persistence and perseverance in its efforts to save the East Fork of the Lewis River and endangered fish from death by gravel mining. On Feb. 11, the activists won an important decision from U.S. Western District Court Judge James L. Robart in Seattle.
He ruled National Marine Fisheries Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Endangered Species Act when they accepted J.L. Storedahl & Sons’ Habitat Conservation Plan, which became the basis for permits allowing operation of the Daybreak gravel mine. The HCP did not take into account state law requirements to reclaim existing pits on the mine site, instead giving credit for the benefits of reclaiming those pits against the effects of the expanded mine operation on the 300-acre site sought by Kelso-based Storedahl. Svend Brandt-Erichsen, representing Friends of the East Fork, said approval was incorrectly based on the HCP.
“The court sets aside the Services’ biological opinions for failure to apply the proper environmental baseline to their opinions and therefore not acting in accordance with law,” the judge declared in the 23-page decision. “… Storedahl therefore committed to performing the conservation measures outlined in the HCP in exchange for permission to conduct surface mining of sand and aggregate at the Daybreak Mine within a proposed 178-acre area of the 300-acre site.” In a footnote, Robart wrote, “While some of this work has begun, Storedahl acknowledges that it has not completed its reclamation work.”
Brandt-Erichsen said, “All of Storedahl’s land use permits for mine expansion were based on the HCP … this decision puts in question the validity of the other permits that have been issued for the project.”
Does it mean Storedahl will have to reapply for permits to mine gravel? That point is not clear, nor is the future of gravel mining at Daybreak Mine, 3.5 miles east of La Center. Storedahl attorney Eric Merrifield, of Seattle, said last week a decision to appeal the ruling to the Ninth District Court has not been made pending an assessment of options. “We have 60 days to file an appeal,” he said.
“What the judge found was a failure of process under the ESA’s procedural requirements,” Merrifield told Columbian reporter Erik Robinson. “But there’s no finding here that the mine expansion and habitat restoration work are in any way going to harm species or habitat.”
Opposing forces have a totally different view of gravel mining on the East Fork. For more than 15 years, the “Brigade” — a combination of Friends of the East Fork and Fish First numbering nearly 1,000 members — has battled Storedahl to maintain the quality of this Columbia River tributary.
The court ruling “is a positive step for fisheries and environmental protection on the East Fork,” said Richard Dyrland, president of the Friends organization and a practicing hydrologist for more than 40 years. It is a step forward for people living in Southwest Washington and northern Oregon, he added. In addition to fish enhancement, another objective of the Brigade is to improve water quality in the river for recreationists. In the past, slurry from gravel-washing has gone directly into the river. At issue are spawning beds for threatened steelhead, as well as chum, chinook and coho salmon. The East Fork of the Lewis River merges with the North Fork below Woodland and then flows into the Columbia River. The East Fork is one of the Columbia’s few undammed tributaries.
Gravel mining has existed for six decades on the East Fork, according to Brigade member Dean Swanson. Mining has drained water out of the aquifer and warmed gravel ponds, which return the warm water to the river, making it a frying pan for juvenile fish.
Gravel can be found elsewhere. At some point, Storedahl must end intermittent gravel mining and exploitation of nature’s precious waterway. That’s the goal of Friends of the East Fork and Fish First. For those efforts, they deserve the support of a grateful community.
Tom Koenninger is editor emeritus of The Columbian. His column of personal opinion appears on Wednesdays. Reach him at email@example.com.