In an echo of nugget-chasers past, a new gold rush is under way on some Northern California rivers -- one that's generating a wealth of controversy. Wildlife proponents say the mining endangers salmon in the rivers, prompting a lawsuit by a local tribe of Native Americans and questions about whether the waterways can support both fish and miners.
At the center of the debate is a gold-ferreting technique far removed from the quaint days of panning. Suction-dredge mining makes it possible for prospectors to scour large and remote stretches of river. Gold hunters use a roaring engine mounted on pontoons to suck gravel and sediment from river bottoms into a sluice box where the ore settles.
The New 49'ers, a sport mining club based in Happy Camp, Calif., sell gold-mining leases that bring enthusiasts, and dredging equipment, to remote reaches of the Klamath River and its cleanest, coldest tributary, the Salmon River. The club says its membership is growing fast.
But its marketing success may also be the club's undoing. The dispute reached a critical stage earlier this year when Joyce Thompson, then U.S. Forest Service district ranger in Orleans, northeast of Eureka, declared most of the Salmon River off-limits to mining pending an environmental review. The Karuk tribe -- the state's second largest -- weighed in Oct. 7 with a lawsuit against the Forest Service for not enforcing Thompson's order.
"There's a boom in this suction-dredge mining on streams in many areas of the West, and essentially, the Forest Service has taken the position that they will not regulate it," says Roger Flynn, an attorney for the Karuks and the Western Mining Action Project in Colorado. "This lawsuit will hopefully stop that illegal position of the Forest Service."
Matt Mathes, a regional press spokesman for the Forest Service, said the agency doesn't comment on ongoing lawsuits. "However, the supervisors of the Six Rivers National Forest and Klamath National Forest will meet this winter to establish a more uniform permitting process for gold suction dredging," says Mathes.
To dig up the gold, wet-suited miners wade or swim with a hose that sucks holes upward of 8 feet across and 5 feet deep. Their equipment floats on a rig about the size of a whitewater raft.
The lure for prospectors is basic, according to the New 49'ers' president and founder, Dave McCracken. Finding gold "hits you where you live," he says. "It's a combination of greed and exhilaration and euphoria."
His group sells access to unpatented mining claims owned by individuals along 60 miles of the Klamath and its tributaries. Unpatented claims grant the holder mineral rights to what is otherwise public land. The New 49'ers then lease those claims out to club members, who pay $3,500 for a lifetime membership.
The New 49'ers declined to comment on the lawsuit. But proponents say their hobby may help fish by stirring up nutrients. Mining holes are covered up when winter rains bring down sediment and gravel from the mountains, they say.
Sam Stroich, program coordinator for the Klamath Forest Alliance, a local environmental group, says the Salmon River may be the last refuge in the Klamath Basin for salmon as well as green sturgeon and lamprey.
"People are putting a lot of energy and money into restoring the Klamath River basin.... If you don't protect the fish, there won't be any fish to repopulate that habitat."
Some Forest Service documents back up environmentalists' claims. In July, Thompson wrote that suction dredging and other mining on the Salmon and Klamath rivers "were likely to cause significant resource disturbance."
Suction dredges may trap young fish of several species, Thompson argued, while excavation may harm spawning habitat. The Karuks and others in the community say they want a chance to analyze the mining's environmental effects in a public forum.
"The New 49'ers are threatening the tribe by threatening the resources that the tribe depends on," says Leaf Hillman, the Karuks' vice chairman. "The point of the lawsuit is to make those federal and state agencies who have mandatory authority under the law do what they need to be doing in terms of regulating this essentially unregulated industry."