The photos above show Castle Peak, 11,815', at
Frog Lake Basin, and a 1970 artists
rendition of what the proposed Molybedenum mine at Castle Peak might have
In 1968 Castle
Peak was threatened by a giant molybedenum mine. Learn more about this
crucial period of regional wilderness history below.
citizens took on one of the largest mining outfits in the nation,
challenging its right to destroy the White Cloud Mountains. That event
precipitated one of the most stunning political upsets in the nation, when
these same people helped an aroused public elect a strong conservationist
to be governor of Idaho.”
--Boyd Norton, “Snake Wilderness”, Sierra Club Books
THE BATTLE FOR CASTLE PEAK
PLANS MASSIVE MOLYBDENUM MINE AT CASTLE PEAK
open-pit molybdenum mine at 11,815-foot Castle Peak in the White Cloud
Mountains set off one of Idaho's fiercest conservation battles. At
first, only rumors hinted of a possible mine as hikers and backpackers saw
exploration equipment. There were drill rigs at Baker Lake, Willow Lake
and Castle Peak. Helicopters were used to set up a mining camp at Baker
September1968, American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO) announced
plans to mine and process “moly” at the base of Castle Peak. ASARCO said
there was a major moly deposit 400 to 600 feet below the surface on the
northeast flank of Castle Peak. The ore deposit was reported to be two
percent moly, and 99.8 percent “waste”.
rock above (overburden) the ore was to be removed. Castle Peak would be
blasted and bulldozed, eventually creating an open pit 7,000-foot long,
700 feet wide, and 600-foot deep. Mine waste and spoil would go into a
two-mile long tailings pond in the Little Boulder watershed, held back by
a 400-foot dam.
haul road was proposed from the East Fork of the Salmon River, up Little
Boulder Creek to Baker Lake, Boulder Chain and Castle Peak. When mining
was done, the pit would fill with water and create a lake, supposedly
providing new recreational opportunities in the White Clouds including
boating. There was talk of creating a golf course on the waste rock dump.
CONTROVERSY BREAKS OUT
Conservationist Ernie Day, Boise, helped
lead the four-year battle against the mine and recalls: “The enormity of
ASARCO’s proposal in the late 1960’s to put a huge open pit moly mine at
the base of perhaps Idaho’s most beautiful peak, Castle Peak in the White
Clouds, caused a real “uproar among Idaho citizens.
“Idaho Governor Don
Samuelson defended the mine as did Challis residents, saying, “The good
Lord never intended us to lock up our resources.” Governor Samuelson also
said at a Western Governor’s Conference that the Forest Service was the
source of the problem: "If they had gone ahead and issued the permit, there
would have been no controversy”.
supervisor of exploration was quoted: “We’ll be removing tons of ore and
rock, but it’s our intention to do it with a minimum of disruption … the
landscape won’t look the way it does now. Maybe it might be even a little
[See Thompson Creek
Mine for photos and information on the environmental
disruption and harm caused by open pit moly mining.]
In 1969, the U.S.
Forest Service announced it would hold public hearings on the access road
permit up Little Boulder Creek. At hearings in Boise and Twin Falls,
people spoke 7 to 1 against the mine. In Challis, the mine was
overwhelmingly supported, with the attitude that “outsiders can’t tell us
what to do with our land”. [Note: the ASARCO claims are on public land,
which belong to all Americans.]
CONSERVATIONISTS OPPOSE MINING CASTLE PEAK
On August 2, 1970,
conservationists who had recently formed The Greater Sawtooth Preservation
Council joined with the Idaho Environmental Council, and ran a full-page
ad in The Idaho Statesman newspaper. A four-inch bold headline said SAVE
THE WHITE CLOUDS. A Castle Peak aerial photo by Ernie Day was shown next
to an artist’s rendition of ASARCO’s proposed open pit.
“Will you help Idaho
choose?” - the ad asked. Readers were urged to fill out coupons, opposing
the mine and send them to Senator Frank Church, Representative James
McClure, Governor Samuelson, and the state’s Republican and Democratic
The ad supported the
creation of a combined National Park and Recreation Area, protecting the
White Clouds, Sawtooths, Boulders and Pioneers.
DEBATE ON HOW TO PROTECT THE WHITE CLOUDS
In 1970, the Idaho
Congressional delegation proposed a 750,000-acre National Park for the
Sawtooths, White Clouds and Boulders, omitting the Pioneers. At the Sun
Valley Opera House, 367 people signed up to testify at a hearing over the
In November 1970, the
battle over Castle Peak helped propel Cecil Andrus to the Idaho
Statehouse. Andrus, who opposed the ASARCO mine, became Idaho’s first
Democratic governor in 25 years by defeating incumbent Samuelson.
Over the next two years,
the debate continued on how to protect the White Clouds and nearby
Sawtooth Mountains. Governor Andrus and Idaho Senator Frank Church
provided essential leadership. A national park and national recreation
area were the competing proposals; the latter won out in Congress.
1972 - SAWTOOTH NATIONAL RECREATION AREA CREATED
On August 22, 1972,
Public Law 92-400 was signed, creating the 754,000 acre Sawtooth National
Recreation Area (SNRA). Included were lands in the Sawtooth, Challis and
Boise National Forests. The law directs the
Secretary of Agriculture to “…administer the SNRA in … such manner as will
the protection and conservation of the salmon and other fisheries;
the conservation and development of scenic, natural, historic,
pastoral, wildlife, and other values, contributing to and available for
public recreation and enjoyment, including the preservation of sites
associated with and typifying the economic and social history of the
management, utilization and disposal of natural resources on federally
owned lands such as timber, grazing and mineral resources insofar as the
utilization will not substantially impair the purposes for which the
recreation area is established.
In the SNRA, mining on
existing claims is still allowed, but only if it does not "substantially
impair" the SNRA’s "natural, scenic, historic, pastoral, and fish and
wildlife values". The interpretation of substantial impairment is often
In establishing the
SNRA, Congress withdrew the entire area from mineral location or entry,
subject to existing rights. The right to patent mining claims was
withdrawn. The Forest Service was also authorized to purchase mineral
interests to protect the values for which the area was established.
NOTE: One conservationist especially needs recognition for going to
Washington, D.C. and pressuring Congress to remove the most glaring
deficiency of the proposed SNRA legislation. Russ Brown, Idaho Falls, and
president of the Greater Sawtooth Preservation Council, along with Senator
Church, insisted that the SNRA bill include "mineral entry withdrawal".
Otherwise, miners would have kept staking claims within the SNRA boundary.
Mining Castle Peak was
stopped. But the company’s 51 mining claims are still there. The threat of
mining continues until ASARCO’s claims are bought out or somehow dealt
with. The mining camp at Baker Lake has now been removed, although a few
scattered cabins remain as well as bull dozed exploration roads.
Existing SNRA management
does allow hunting, firewood gathering, timber sales, grazing on public
land, unlimited hiking, and abundant camping. (Within the SNRA, the
communities of Stanley, Obsidian, and Sawtooth City operate as independent
municipalities and are governed by different building and zoning
Another reason the SNRA
was created was to stop subdivisions in the Sawtooth Valley. Before1972,
private land development threatened long-treasured views of the White
Clouds and Sawtooth Mountains. The SNRA prevented that destruction, too.
Eventually some 2,000 lots were acquired and returned to natural
condition. There are still 22,200 acres of private property within the
SNRA; much of it used for cattle grazing. Many scenic easements have been
acquired to guarantee the land remains undeveloped.
BUT WHITE CLOUDS LEFT OUT
At the same time of
SNRA designation, 217,000 acres in the Sawtooth Mountains were added to
the National Wilderness Preservation System, becoming the Sawtooth
Wilderness. But, the White Clouds were prevented from receiving
Wilderness protection by the mining industry and its political allies.
Instead, the White Clouds became a Congressionally designated Wilderness
Study Area and a mineral review was ordered. The intent was that once the
mineral survey was done, the area could be eligible for Wilderness
legislation. Thirty years later, the magnificent White Cloud and Boulders
are still awaiting final Wilderness protection.
There have been
several attempts by conservationists to pass legislation protecting the
Boulder-White Clouds as Wilderness since 1972, including 1983, 1986-87,
1993-94, and those efforts continue today.
We are indebted to
Ralph Maughan and Ernie Day for their recollections and help in compiling
this historical account. Also to Boyd Norton, author of “Snake