Hobby miners flock to public streams

Growing pastime raises concerns about an outdated law

  • Robert Simington runs a suction dredge through the gravel in Grave Creek, a tributary of Southern Oregon's Rogue River, while his father, Jim, eyes the tailings. The two are part of a growing number of hobby miners who prospect for gold on public lands.

    Matthew Preusch

GALICE, Oregon — Down a steep canyon of oak and willow in Oregon’s Siskiyou Mountains, Robert Simington sucks streambed gravel through a powerful hydraulic dredge. He sets the 3.5 horsepower engine to idle and calls to his father, Jim, "Any yellow in there?"

Jim sifts through the tailings in a pan and a few flakes of gold separate out. It’s no mother lode, but enough to encourage further excavation. "We’re not going to get rich doing this," he says, "but it’s recreation."

This father-and-son prospecting team is part of a small but enthusiastic group of mining hobbyists who spend their weekends knee-deep in remote streams and creeks, panning, sluicing or dredging for tiny traces of gold. Enthusiasts say it’s a way to spend time outdoors, and maybe make enough to cover ice for the cooler and gas for the truck.

The hobby has its own glossy magazine, featuring tips on building your own sluice box, reviews of new pans and recipes for rattlesnake stew. The Outdoor Channel airs a prospecting television program. Amateur prospectors attend rallies from Virginia to Washington state.

The mineral-rich Klamath-Siskiyou region of Northern California and southern Oregon has become a prospecting hotspot. But environmentalists contend these hobby miners threaten waterways and the fish that depend on them for habitat. The local Siskiyou Regional Education Project catalogs damage done by dredgers: eroded stream banks, excavated gravel beds, increased water turbidity, destroyed vegetation, litter.

"Most of this in-stream mining actually takes place in the most sensitive parts of the stream," says Barbara Ullian, conservation coordinator for the nonprofit Siskiyou Project. Dredging can destroy nests, or redds, where salmon lay their eggs, and smother the eggs in fine silt, she says.

Last year, the group sued the U.S. Forest Service for failing to mitigate the effects of in-stream mining in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, just over the ridge from where the Simingtons were dredging. The lawsuit claimed that the agency failed to follow regulations protecting salmon and steelhead that were established under the Northwest Forest Plan.

Last fall, a federal judge in Eugene rejected the lawsuit. The Siskiyou Project appealed that ruling in mid-April, according to Peter Frost, an attorney representing the group. "It would be one thing if miners complied with the law, but many don’t," says Frost. "And the agency rarely takes enforcement action."

As with most public-lands disputes, the Forest Service says it is stuck between two competing groups and is merely doing its best to enforce archaic mining laws. Kevin Johnson, area mining geologist for the agency, says miners must file plans only if they intend to clear vegetation, excavate banks, or do anything else that would require restoration on national forest lands. Otherwise, they can operate without federal oversight.

"With the regulations and the mining laws the way they are, if what they propose is reasonable, essentially we have to find a way to approve it," says Johnson.

Each state has its own rules as well. In Oregon, for example, state rules forbid harassing fish or dredging when fish are spawning, and miners using larger dredges must not kick up a plume of sediment that extends more than 300 feet downstream. But dredgers are allowed to move boulders, logs and other obstacles. The only requirement to use a dredge with 30 horsepower or less to suck sediment through hose 6 inches or less in diameter, is a $25 annual permit from the state.

Multiple attempts to reform national mining laws have failed in recent years. The most recent effort, in which Reps. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., and James Gibbons, R-Nev., attempted to allow mining companies to buy public lands, died in the face of bipartisan opposition in December (HCN, 12/26/05: Energy companies score massive refund checks).

Meanwhile, gold prices — at a 25-year high — combined with the growing number of retiring baby boomers, could draw more people to prospecting. In 2004, about 2,000 people were registered to operate suction dredges in Oregon, according to the state Department of Environmental Quality. Kristine Olson, with the Gold Prospectors Association of America, says her group now has roughly 35,000 members, up from 28,000 just a few years ago.

And as the hobby grows, the age-old friction between miners and conservationists is sure to create more heat.

Bob and Lesa Barton, owners of the Armadillo Mining Shop in Grants Pass, a popular supply point for area prospectors, have intervened in the Siskiyou Project’s lawsuit — on the Forest Service’s side. Sitting at his shop next to a sticker reading "Earth First: We’ll mine the other planets later," Barton says environmentalists won’t stop until even the smallest mining projects are reviewed under the National Environmental Policy Act, one of the country’s landmark conservation laws.

"They can close the woods then," he says.

Matthew Preusch is a Bend-based freelance writer and correspondent for the Oregonian.

High Country News Classifieds