By Paul Fattig
A bill to restrict suction dredge mining on sections of 30 rivers in Oregon, including the Rogue and Illinois drainages, has fired up the mining camp as well as the environmental and recreational communities.
The Waldo Mining District and other mining organizations have pledged to fight it, while the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center and Rogue Flyfishers urge its support.
Introduced by state Sen. Alan Bates, D-Medford, Senate Bill 401 would expand an existing ban suction dredge mining by expanding to 30 the river segments identified as Oregon State Scenic Waterways.
The goal is to protect the region's legacy of clean water and river recreation, said Bates, the deputy majority leader.
"Southern Oregon is home to thousands of us who consider our peaceful, pristine rivers a legacy to pass on to the next generation," Bates said in a prepared statement. "The dramatic increase in this potentially harmful practice may have serious impacts on fish, recreational users, conservationists and affected property owners."
He noted that the practice of vacuuming up a river bed with a motorized raft to obtain gold has become more prevalent over the past decade, growing from a few hundred permits a decade ago to nearly 2,000 permits in 2012.
"Clean water and healthy fish are cherished Oregon values, and I'm calling for hearings and a thoughtful discovery process to ensure protection for these threatened rivers and streams," he said.
Expansion of scenic waterways as proposed in the bill would increase protections of Oregon's rivers and streams to only one-half of 1 percent of streams in the state, said Bates, who serves on the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee.
California placed a moratorium on suction dredge mining in 2009, citing its impacts on the salmon population.
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality issued 1,205 dredging permits in 2011, a 30 percent increase from the previous year. Permit-holders in Oregon who list California as their address jumped from 51 in 2011 to 85 in 2012, reflecting a 67 percent increase, The Associated Press reported.
Opponents to dredging say that moratorium, coupled with high gold prices, sent many California suction dredge miners north into Oregon. They say suction dredging in local rivers has led to complaints from nearby landowners of illegal trespassing and noisy engines running in the river, as well as destroying salmon spawning habitat and creating fish-killing turbidity.
But gold miners reject suggestions that dredging harms riverbeds and the fishery. They say the bill, along with two other bills that would curtail mining, is an attack on an historic Oregon tradition and way of life. Miners from throughout the state plan to rally against the bill on the steps of the state capitol in Salem on Thursday afternoon.
"Actually, the bill would probably make us all rich," said Tom Kitchar, 59, head of the historic Waldo Mining District in the Illinois Valley. "The state has no authority to prohibit mining on federal land. If we can't mine on our legitimate claims, they are taking our private property away from us."
The point, he said, is the bill would engulf the state in a mountain of lawsuits.
"Our lawyer says that if they do this, we will bankrupt the state," said Kitchar, a miner in the area for a quarter of a century. "This bill is highly illegal."
He employs a suction dredge in his placer mining operation but can only use it from June 15 to Sept. 15, a time when fish are not spawning, he noted.
"I believe what we do is beneficial to the fish," he said. "The people who don't like suction dredging say we suck up fish eggs, but that is just not true."
He said he believes suction dredging creates spawning gravel for fish the rest of the year.
Because the bill would include the stream as well as the land a quarter-mile on either side, the legislation would also impact private property in an area designated as a state scenic waterway, he said.
But George Sexton, conservation director for the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, an Ashland-based environmental watchdog group, said the bill is needed to protect streams and their habitat.
"The scenic waterways proposed for protection are some of the most iconic, beautiful, fish-bearing streams in the state," he said. "They are a special treasure that has been bequeathed to us by our ancestors and that we hand down to our children.
"Oregonians are increasingly seeing the impacts of in-stream suction dredging on these streams in the form of long, dirty sediment plumes, streambank undercutting and damaged fish habitat in these special places," he added.
John Ward of Rogue Flyfishers also believes there is more gold in the fish and clear water than in the riverbeds.
"World-class rivers like the Illinois, Rogue and South Umpqua have become ground zero for destructive suction dredge mining in our state, and this practice is impacting imperiled wild salmon runs," he said. "This designation will benefit salmon recovery as water quality and fish habitat get protected."
For his part, Bates said he remains open minded about possible solutions and would continue to communicate with property owners, miners, local businesses and others on the controversial issue.
"If it's bad for our rivers and streams, then it should not be allowed in the most vulnerable and beautiful portions of those waters," he said. "We must ensure that miners offset the costs to property owners and other river users -- and we must ensure as little damage to our rivers as possible."
In 1970, Oregonians voted by a 2-to-1 margin to create the scenic waterway system. The program originally contained all or part of six rivers but has grown through additional initiatives to include 19 rivers, as well as Waldo Lake. The system was last revamped 25 years ago.
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.