No one is willing to stray too far out on a limb, but executives within North Idaho’s mining and timber industries are hopeful that the coming administration of President-elect Donald Trump will produce some useful change.
“I think the proper phrase would be ‘cautious optimism,’” said Ben Davenport, executive director of the Idaho Mining Association. “The election result was a pleasant surprise, but now we have to see if a lot of the things (Trump) has mentioned about helping businesses will translate into action that benefits our industry.”
Mining companies have compiled a laundry list of issues that the new administration has signaled it may address — matters like untangling governmental red tape that keeps mine owners waiting interminably for permits, and excessive bonding restrictions that make the business more costly than industry executives believe it should be.
“What we’d really like to see is some kind of certainty in oversight, in permitting, in all aspects of operation,” said Luke Russell, vice president for external affairs for Hecla Mining Co., based in Coeur d’Alene.
“In the United States, it takes seven to 10 years to get through what is a very uncertain permitting process. That’s a lot of time and money invested, and a lot is lost because you don’t know what’s coming next — the uncertainty that comes from various agencies.
“There are mines where large investments have been made, jobs are at stake, everything is shovel-ready, but nothing happens because there’s a delay in permitting that doesn’t have to be there.
“That’s what I mean about hoping for certainty. In any industry, if you know the rules and the time involved, you can make good decisions. So, yes, we’re hoping that this administration can cut through some of the bureaucracy that has caused so much difficulty.”
Despite what might be construed as a misplaced public perception, neither of Idaho’s mining or timber industries sees — or wants — any backsliding of environmental legislation or restrictions.
For instance, the timber industry largely has made a long-standing peace with most major environmental groups and the agencies that enforce them.
“We really don’t have a problem with recognized environmental organizations,” said Bob Boeh, vice president for government and community affairs for the Idaho Forest Group. “I’ve been working with these people for a long time [since the mid-1980s], and if you can sit at a table and work out what’s best for everyone, you can get an agreement.
“We’ve done that, and the timber industry should be in a solid situation with everyone who cares about the environment.
“Where we run into problems is with litigation. You have a handful of groups outside the mainstream – like the Alliance for the Wild Rockies [based in Helena, Mont.] and some others – who will continue to sue over every project, and tie you up in litigation that is terribly costly and doesn’t help anyone.
“Even if you win in court, the project might be delayed so long that it’s no longer worthwhile.”
Boeh said the timber industry’s unhappiness with what he called “fringe environmental groups” stems from the fact that anyone can hire an attorney and sue to halt a project — but without proposing any alternative to the industry’s plan.
“We like to see legislation put in place that establishes a ‘baseball arbitration’ system,” Boeh said. “Let both sides present their solution to an arbitrator, make their case and get an up-or-down decision.
“That would be cheaper, quicker and give the Forest Service a clear direction going forward.”
The mining industry also has a problem with litigation.
“The process could be made quicker and simpler,” Hecla’s Russell said. “I think one of the problems is that government just isn’t moving at the speed of business, and that’s an issue for mining, timber, all the industries that rely on our natural resources.”
Like Boeh, Russell was quick to point out that neither Hecla nor other mining companies in Idaho are looking for looser environmental regulations.
“We’re not in favor of that, and I don’t think it will happen in any case,” he said. “If you actually look at all the major environmental legislation in this country, almost all of it has come during Republican administrations.
“I don’t think this will be any different, but that’s not the problem. We need a long look at governmental practices – as Trump has mentioned when campaigning – and hopefully things can be made a lot smoother.”
Davenport put an exclamation point on how the state’s major industries feel about the environment affecting business.
“We understand that all of these types of projects need to have win/win solutions for all stakeholders. This is where cooperation, collaboration and bridge-building is so important,” he said. “Working together with environmental groups is something that our membership feels very strongly about. At the end of the day, we all want to leave a healthy and sustainable Idaho.
“Perhaps the new administration and this next Congress can help with that.”
An unidentified worker uses an underground loader inside the Lucky Friday Mine.