RENO - Nine mineral exploration projects can take place in roadless areas of the largest national forest outside Alaska, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack decided.
Vilsack said the activity in Nevada's Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest and five other projects in national forests in Colorado, Utah, Washington and Wyoming were allowed under a 2001 federal rule banning construction of new roads on national forest land.
He said his agency has no discretion to stop mineral exploration activity in the roadless areas because of the 1872 Mining Law, which takes precedence. The law regulates the mining of gold, silver and other hard-rock minerals on public land.
"While the decisions announced allow for mineral exploration in roadless areas, not only does USDA have limited authority to approve or disapprove these activities, but these actions are consistent with the 2001 'Roadless Rule,'" Vilsack said in a statement.
He stressed that his agency remains committed to protecting roadless areas.
Agriculture Department spokeswoman Stephanie Chan said 12 mineral exploration projects approved by Vilsack involve a total of 0.2 miles of new road, 0.43 miles of road reconstruction and 8.4 miles of temporary road that eventually will be reclaimed.
Vilsack also signed off on mineral exploration projects in Utah's Ashley and Sawtooth national forests and Washington's Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.
Elsewhere, he allowed a Colorado coal mine to drill wells on roadless forest land to vent methane, and reconstruction of a campground and hiking trail in Wyoming's Big Horn National Forest.
Marge Sill, wilderness chair of the Sierra Club's Toiyabe chapter in Nevada, criticized Vilsack's approval of the mining exploration projects.
"We already have given permission for mining claims in a lot of places on public lands and I think that should be sufficient for mining companies," she said. "They should stay out of the roadless areas."
Mike Anderson, senior resource analyst of the Wilderness Society in Seattle, said Vilsack lacked authority to halt the activity under the administratively-designated roadless rule.
"We're not happy to see roads being built in roadless areas," he said. "But on the other hand, I can't say that we're upset or critical of the secretary for doing what he's doing because he's probably doing as much as he can with the limited authority he has."
Tim Crowley, president of the Nevada Mining Association, praised Vilsack's action.
"We're glad the secretary approved those projects," he said. "It shows support for the need to continue exploring and finding new reserves of raw materials."
Most of the exploration activity in Nevada involves hard-rock minerals, Crowley said. Nevada ranks fourth in the world in gold production behind South Africa, Australia and China.
U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Christie Kalkowski said there are nearly 3.4 million acres of inventoried roadless areas on the Humboldt-Toiyabe, which is about half of its total area.
Some of the roughly 58 million acres protected nationwide under the 2001 policy adopted by the Clinton administration was potentially opened to development under the Bush administration.
The 2001 policy has been the subject of court battles across the country.