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The Battle for Castle Peak

The Battle for Castle Peak
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 looked like.

In 1968 Castle Peak was threatened by a giant molybedenum mine. Learn more about this crucial period of regional wilderness history below.

“….Twenty outraged 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


A proposed 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 Lake.

Then, in 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”.

All the 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.

A ten-mile 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.

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”. 

ASARCO’s Northwest 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 better.” 

[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.]

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 Central Committees.

The ad supported the creation of a combined National Park and Recreation Area, protecting the White Clouds, Sawtooths, Boulders and Pioneers.

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 issue.

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.

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 best provide:

(1)   the protection and conservation of the salmon and other fisheries;

(2)   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 American West;

(3)   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 strongly debated.

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 regulations.)

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.

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 Wilderness.”


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