Dredging Western rivers for gold


An item in the October 11th edition’s “Heard around the West” reported on an influx of “gold miners” on Southern Oregon’s Rogue River. But the article did not explain why so many miners are on the Rogue now.

The vast majority of these “miners” do not make a living mining. Rather they dredge in the summer and do other things in the winter. They are referred to as recreational miners. As HCN reported back in 2006  these “miners” flock to Oregon streams when the price of gold skyrockets as it has recently.

Suction dredges on the Scott River, a major Klamath River tributary

The increase in “recreational” dredge mining in Southern Oregon this time, however, is also related to a successful drive by a coalition of tribes and environmentalists to end the practice of suction dredge mining in California. Those who oppose the practice say that it harms salmon runs. Led by the Klamath River’s Karuk Tribe, the drive to end the practice has resulted in litigation and a new California law which bans suction dredge mining in California until the Department of Fish and Game completes and environmental review of the practice and issues new regulations. Many of California’s suction dredgers do their thing along the Klamath River just south of the Oregon border. When dredging was banned in California these folks simply moved a bit north to the Rogue River.

High Country News has not reported on the battle over suction dredge mining in California. For more on this issue – including information on the ecological impact of suction dredge mining - follow this link to the Klamath Riverkeeper website’s extensive section on the issue. 

Recreational miners claim that dredging is good for salmon because the practice puts food into the water column and cleans spawning gravels. But scientific studies and experience on the ground has not substantiated these claims. As in the picture below, the gravel piles left behind by dredgers can attract spawning salmon only to dewater the nest and kill the eggs when the water level drops. Scientists also tell us that the clean gravel piles left by dredging are unstable; salmon nests made in the loose piles rarely if ever survive the flood flows of winter.

 Dewatered dredge tailings on the Scott River, a major Klamath River tributary

Putting the terms “recreational” and “mining” together has always seemed ludicrous to me. There is nothing “recreational” about real mining – it is hard and dangerous work. But most of those who practice “recreational mining” do not appear interested in hard work. In my experience they spend more time setting up their free campsites on public land and sitting around in armchairs than they do mining.

Nevertheless these recreators enjoy the free access, free camping and other benefits conferred by the federal Mining Law of 1892. That law was designed to encourage real mining….not recreation. As far as I can tell, however, no one has yet challenged recreational mining enthusiasts’ claims to coverage under the old law.  

High Country News has extensively covered the 1872 mining law. Here are links to a few of the more recent stories:

Felice Pace has lived in the Klamath River Basin since 1975. For 15 years, he worked for and led the Klamath Forest Alliance as Program Coordinator, Executive Director and Program Director. He remains part of the Alliance’s Core Group, and now consults with environmental and indigenous organizations on fund raising and development. He currently resides at Klamath Glen, near the mouth of the Klamath River.

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