Dredge Fight




You can almost smell the whiff of burnt palm as gold bugs everywhere rub their hands together with ever-more-gleeful vigor. That’s because some predictions have it that gold will soar to yet higher heights this year, maybe $1,500 an ounce. Did it last year, in March, hitting an historic $1,023 an ounce. (Then it crashed, but it’s on the rise again.)

This means increased suffering in some places, however, according to the main feature in National Geographic ’s January 2009 issue, "The Real Price of Gold" , which explores the big boys of hard-rock gold mining and how they’re bringing wealth and destruction to some Third World communities.

The soaring price also has provoked excited chatter among recreational miners, including those who pan and dredge for the leavings of past centuries’ miners. However, the folks over at goldgold.com, a Web site run by a mining club called The New 49’ers devoted to suction dredge mining in the Klamath region, lately have been shaking their fists more than burnishing their palms. Once again, they are peeved at the Karuk -- the upriver tribe that’s lived along the Klamath River for thousands of years.

Karuks are at it again!

reads the subject line on one entry on the group’s members forum .

The day after Christmas, the Karuk, California Trout, Friends of the North Fork and The Sierra Fund filed a petition with the director of the state Department of Fish and Game, Donald Koch, asking him to place emergency restrictions on suction gold dredge mining on sections of the Klamath, Scott and Salmon rivers and their tributaries in order to protect coho salmon, green sturgeon and lamprey. They also asked that segments of five streams on the west side of the Sierra Nevada be temporarily closed to suction dredge mining to protect native trout. They say suction dredge mining stirs up sediments, releases mercury into the streams, and kills salmon eggs and immature lamprey living in the gravels.

The emergency restrictions are necessary, says Craig Tucker, Klamath Campaign Coordinator for the Karuk, because the state has been too slow to meet a court order to update its guidelines for suction dredge gold mining. The Karuk sued DFG a few years ago, saying the agency’s guidelines for dredge mining, made in 1994, fail to protect the coho salmon because it was listed by the state as threatened and by the feds as endangered after the rules were written. The DFG has to do an environmental impact study in order to change its suction dredge rules -- but it hasn’t had the money to do so, says Tucker. And, legislative attempts to restrict dredge mining have failed.

But now suddenly there is the promise of money. At a hearing Tuesday, the State Water Resources Control Board agreed to give Fish and Game $500,000 to work on the EIS for the guidelines change, says Tucker.

You’d think there’d be high fives all around. But of course there’s a catch, and of course it has to do with the state’s budget horrors. In a letter to the board , and at the hearing, the Karuk Tribe and fellow petitioners asked the board not to promise DFG the money unless -- unless -- it also agreed to implement the requests in the petition to immediately restrict dredge mining.

Said Tucker on Wednesday:

We’re worried that, because of this budget crisis, that money could get yanked before they get the CEQA process started. And so that’s why we’ve moved forward with this petition because we want something to happen immediately.

The board voted to give DFG the $500,000 -- with no strings attached. Regardless, said Tucker, the petition to the DFG director still stands; Koch has until Jan. 26 to make a decision. And, also this week, the petition gained the formidable support of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, whose board Tuesday to support it.

In a news release yesterday from the petitioners, Glen Spain, Northwest Regional Director of the PCFFA, said their request makes sense in light of recent restrictions on commercial fishing. Said Spain:

Last April, the state and federal government took unprecedented emergency actions to completely close California’s coast to recreational and commercial salmon fishing, something that is causing severe economic harm to businesses and communities. That is why it is critical for California Fish and Game to act now to limit recreational suction dredge mining operations and protect threatened and endangered species like coho salmon.

Tucker said dredge mining, which requires personnel to process permit applications and enforce the rules, actually costs the state money:
The fact of the matter is, Fish and Game is losing over a million dollars a year running this suction dredge program. And we see that as subsidizing the destruction of the fishery.

We wrote about another aspect of this ongoing battle a while back -- those scrappy indie miners.

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