Gold dredging conflict heats up


Back in April, HCN managing editor Jodi Peterson wrote about efforts by the State of California to come up with regulations governing suction dredge mining. The regulation rewrite is required by court order. The Karuk Tribe, Klamath Riverkeeper and others won the order by challenging whether the environmental impacts of vacuuming streambeds for gold had been adequately assessed and reviewed.

In December 2006, the court ordered the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) to “conduct further environmental review pursuant to CEQA of its suction dredge mining regulations and to implement, if necessary, via rulemaking, mitigation measures to protect Coho salmon and/or other special status fish species in the watershed of the Klamath, Scott, and Salmon Rivers, listed as threatened or endangered after the 1994 EIR.”

The court enjoined CDFG from issuing new suction dredge permits pending completion of the review and mitigation process. CDFG plans to complete environmental review and adopt new suction dredge regulations by the end of 2011.

Suction Gold Dredge on Northern California's Scott River

The court did not prohibit dredging under existing permits. But on August 6, 2009, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation prohibiting the use of suction dredge equipment in any California river, stream or lake, regardless of whether the operator had an existing permit from CDFG. All suction dredging became illegal in California pending completion of the environmental review and promulgation of new regulations.

Prior to the dredging moratorium, California issued an average of 3,200 suction dredge permits each year. Most of the gold dredging occurred in the Central Sierra Nevada and Klamath Mountains near the Oregon border. So-called “recreational mining” on national forests and other public lands makes up the vast majority of California suction dredge mining. Recreational miners camp on mining sites on public land while they are mining.  When the legislature shut down dredging in California, the dredgers – most of whom dredge as a hobby and mostly in summer – simply loaded up their RVs and moved over the border to Southern Oregon.

Concentrating on tributaries to Southern Oregon’s Rogue River, the dredger invasion raised concerns among Southern Oregon environmental groups. Those concerns prompted Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality to come up with a new permit for in-stream gold dredging. Environmental groups call that a “paper exercise” which will not protect at-risk salmon. Rogue Riverkeeper recently filed suit to block dredge mining in Sucker Creek – a key salmon watershed.

Back in California, the legislature is getting into the act again. It costs about $2 million per year to issue gold dredge permits, monitor dredging and enforce the regulations. Some Democratic legislators don’t think it's worth the cost and have proposed cutting funds for the permit program for five years. That would have the effect of extending the moratorium on gold dredging in California streams.  The legislation might also prohibit CDFG from spending funds to complete the environmental review and promulgate new regulations.

The Sacramento Bee - one of California’s most influential newspapers – has editorialized in favor of the budget move.  Because Democrats control the legislature and governor’s office, it is widely believed that the funding cut will go into effect. Reaction from suction dredge companies and promotion groups has been fiercely negative; the Western Mining Alliance is mounting an effort to defeat the proposed legislation.

The vast majority of suction dredge mining in California takes place on public lands. While the activity is overwhelmingly recreational the federal government considers it authorized and governed by the 1872 mining act. As a result, recreational gold dredgers do not have to comply with regulations which govern all other recreation on national forests and other public lands. For example, there is a 14 day limit on the amount of time a person or group can camp at the same location on a national forest. But that regulation does not apply to recreational miners who can and do camp for free on public land for as long as they please. Suction dredge recreational miners also alter streambeds and often remove riparian vegetation – prohibited activities for other recreators.

Some environmentalists have suggested that suction dredge mining should be regulated as recreation rather than mining. The 1872 mining law, they argue, is intended for commercial mineral development and should not apply to recreational mining. However, a legal challenge  has not been undertaken to test that legal theory.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by the High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

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 program development. He currently resides at Klamath Glen, near the mouth of the Klamath River.

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