The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday that the Forest Service must strengthen its regulation of suction dredge gold mining and other small-scale mining operations in salmon streams throughout the western United States.
In the past, smaller-scale recreational miners have been given access to federal forests to search for gold in stream gravels under a streamlined notification process. That process was in violation of the Endangered Species Act, the court ruled.
Gold mining with small, vacuum-like dredges is popular in some parts of the rural Northwest, including southern Oregon and Idaho.
The 7-to-4 appeals court decision came in response to a suit filed by the Karuk Tribe of Northern California. The tribe sued the Forest Service in 2004, after the agency approved a number of gold dredging operations on a 35 mile stretch of the Klamath river. Endangered Coho salmon that spawn in the Klamath are a central part of the Karuk diet and culture; the tribe has also fought for decades to remove dams on the upper reaches of the river.
The circuit court ruling will require the Forest Service to consult with fish and wildlife agencies. the Karuk Tribe, which filed the lawsuit, hailed the ruling for putting the authority of the Endangered Species Act ahead of the 1872 Mining Act. For more than a century, the law has prevailed over environmental laws, to the ire of conservation groups and tribes. Craig Tucker, the Karuk Tribe’s Klamath coordinator, hailed the ruling.
“You can’t just willy-nilly approve this stuff, when there’s an ESA listed salmon at stake. You actually have to ask fish experts, NOAA Fisheries or U.S. Fish and Wildlife, if this activity would create harm.”
Tucker says the Karuk Tribe will be given an opportunity to weigh in when that consultation takes place.
“I do think it’s really going to change the way mining works in the Pacific Northwest, because of the salmon listings” he says.
The court decision applies to mining on federal lands in a broad swath of western states from Arizona to Alaska. In theory, the ruling could apply to other endangered species found in streams.
However, the ruling should not impact mining in streams and rivers without endangered species, and it does not apply to traditional gold panning.
In a strongly worded and illustrated dissent, Circuit Court Judge Milan D. Smith Jr argued that the majority’s decision ignored precedent and effectively shut down small scale suction dredge mining.
Smith noted that federal fish and wildlife agencies often face a backlog of ESA consultation requests, and that the approval process could take months or years.
“Most miners affected by this decision will have neither the resources nor the patience to pursue a consultation with the EPA; they will simply give up, and curse the Ninth Circuit.”
The Forest Service has several months to decide whether to petition the Supreme Court to hear an appeal of the case.
Read the full 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision below.