Miners in Oregon are suing the state over the decision to ban dredging.
A battle has been brewing over mining rights to Federal lands, particularly with the use of suction dredging devices that vacuum sediments from the riverbed into a sluice that sorts out gold and spits the remaining debris back into the river.
The state of Oregon is imposing a ban on the practice in an effort to preserve spawning populations of salmon who deposit their eggs into the pebbles that are disturbed by the dredge-mining.
Mining interest groups including diggers and equipment manufacturers have joined forces to file a lawsuit against the state for imposing the ban, claiming that the state has no jurisdiction to regulate mining practices on Federal land.
Oregon's proposed five-year moratorium is set to take effect on Jan. 2, 2016 as part of smaller-scale regulations on suction dredging, imposed in 2013. At the time, the ban was meant to last for two years, enough time to give lawmakers time to develop more permanent rules, which never happened.
Senate Bill 838 signed by former Governor John Kitzhaber also reduces the number of permits issued and gives preference to long-time Oregon miners with only minor changes to current dredging regulations. The reduction of permits is aimed at reducing the influx of out-of-state dredge mining as California banned the practice in 2009.
Plaintiffs of the lawsuit contend that mining provides an income for many families within the state who rely on the use of motorized dredging equipment, adding that as much as $10 million is spent on permit fees, income and sales taxes.
However, wildlife advocates and environmental groups argue that the cleanup bill is left up to taxpayers and the state, adding that the cost of lost habitat for wildlife is insurmountable.
Adding to the state and federal conflict, restrictions on dredging play a key role in statewide efforts to comply with the Endangered Species Act. Dredging disturbs the river bottom on spawning grounds that have been designated as "threatened" or "endangered" under federal law.
Josh Laughlin, executive director of the conservation group Cascadia Wildlands says, "We're spending millions of dollars to restore these incredible river systems, only to watch them being vacuumed up, essentially, by miners."
"Salmon are part of the identity of the Pacific Northwest and are on the decline throughout much of their historic range," said Forrest English, the Oregon-based program director for environmental activist organization, Rogue Riverkeeper. "The science is pretty clear that when you're suction dredge mining, you're disturbing the integrity of spawning gravels," Laughlin said. "This impacts the early life cycle of salmon."
According to the organization, in 2012, roughly 2,000 miners registered to use suction dredges in Oregon's streams, almost all of whom were working in southwest Oregon's rivers, a 200% increase from the previous year.
Prior to the current moratorium, approximately 3,200 suction dredge permits were issued each year in California.
The practice of dredging directly affects wildlife by sucking up eggs, mollusks, amphibians and smaller fish into the machinery, as well as indirectly affecting habitat by causing erosion, disturbing riparian vegetation, and stirring sediments creating turbidity that reduces water quality, all necessary elements to the healthy production of young salmon.
In a report by Fox News, Shannon Poe, of the American Mining Rights Association, said claimants who paid fees to the Bureau of Land Management should not be barred from suction dredging. The group contends the prohibition of dredging is pre-empted by at least seven federal laws dating back to the Mining Acts of 1866.
Miners pay for claims that allow them exclusive mining rights on federally protected rivers and streams, or to hunt for gold on any unclaimed lands.
"It is really the only effective way to get the gold," said Poe, who owns five dredges and holds claims in five states, including Oregon. "You could still go in with a shovel and a pan, but it wouldn't be efficient and, of course, the environmental effect would be the same - a non-factor. They don't care a whole lot about the science, or the facts or the truth that conclusively proved suction dredging does not harm fish."
The technology and demand for gold has evolved tremendously in the past 150 years. The suction dredge wasn't developed until the 1960's. At the time of the Mining Acts of 1866, a prospector could have struck it rich using simple tools and panning for gold without mechanical equipment.
However, in a Reuters report, Waldo Mining District's President Tom Kitchar argues that environmental groups are promoting rigid restrictions based on incomplete scientific research, and that the ban on motorized devices impacts equipment other than suction dredge gear. He also says the new regulations reflect ignorance about mining practices dating back to the 1850s, when people drawn to California for the 1848 gold rush turned their attention north toward Oregon. The organization is helping fund the lawsuit but is not a plaintiff.
"Can the state regulate mining? Yes, on state land and state-controlled waters, but not on federal land," said Kitchar.