Gold Mining's Return Worries Biologists

Rising gold prices could mean more recreational gold miners flocking to the west. But the revived hobby has fish biologists and environmentalists concerned.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

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And I'm Robert Siegel.

A slice of the Old West survives along some remote creeks and rivers. It is the lure of gold. Recreational prospectors spend hour after hour searching for even the tiniest flecks of the precious metal, and not everyone is welcoming this old-time hobby. As Tom Banse reports from southwest Oregon, some environmentalists are working for increased regulation.

TOM BANSE reporting:

Gold fever didn't die after the California gold rush or the stampede to the Yukon. Marsha Demeris(ph) has it today.

Ms. MARSHA DEMERIS (Recreational Prospector): We all want to find lots of gold and retire.

BANSE: Demeris and her husband tend a pair of small gold dredges during a vacation on the Illinois River in southwest Oregon. That's the suction hose motor you hear chugging in the background. Demeris pulls out two vials containing yesterday's haul.

Ms. DEMERIS: Sixteenth of an ounce, not very much.

BANSE: One nugget and a collection of rice-sized flakes, unmistakably radiant in the sun.

BANSE: This is all fresh gold. Like that big chunk I showed that was real rough, this just came out of the last storm. Every storm they have in the winter, it pulls it out of the mountains and pushes it into the creek, and it replenishes itself every year.

(Soundbite of suction hose motor)

BANSE: Demeris uses what's basically a Shopvac on floats. It sucks up gravel from the streambed, separates out any gold and redeposits the rest back in the water.

BANSE: Whatever we've done this year, you'll never see next year, because the rains and the floods will fill in everything that we've done.

BANSE: She's still hoping to hit a rich pocket that would allow her to reconsider her day job delivering the mail in central Oregon. If Demeris sold what she's found so far to a jeweler, she'd net just enough to pay for food on this vacation.

The number of recreational gold miners is fuzzy. Though this is certainly a niche hobby, there are clubs that buy and rent mining claims. There are also specialty stores that stock the gold pans and dredge parts miners need. That's where we found 58-year-old Terry Murray. The bushy-bearded Vietnam vet describes prospecting in the mountains as therapeutic. He owns a suction dredge. Murray says scouring the streambed for nuggets is not as bad as it sounds.

Mr. TERRY MURRAY (Recreational Prospector): So I think it's stirring up the silt, feeding the critters that live in the creek. I think, if done right, it's good for the creek. My opinion.

BANSE: But is it? Stream ecologist Kristopher Wright at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville says it depends.

Mr. KRISTOPHER WRIGHT (Stream Ecologist, University of Wisconsin-Platteville): If you're just doing a small-scale thing here and there, you're not impacting the system continuously, that's no more of a disturbance than a good rainstorm or a flood event that would normally occur.

BANSE: Wright agrees with the US Forest Service assessment: Recreational gold mining is mostly innocuous, yet there are exceptions.

Mr. WRIGHT: There are some larger-scale folks that go out there and really turn up the system with more technology and for a longer period of time. That kind of ruins it for everyone.

BANSE: Recreational mining has seasons to minimize disturbance to fish runs. Generally, the season is mid-June to mid-September in Western states. But that's not enough, according to Richard Nawa. He's the staff ecologist for a local environmental group. Today, he's checking the mining claims on Briggs Creek in the Siskiyou National Forest.

Mr. RICHARD NAWA (Ecologist, The Siskiyou Project): Yeah, this excellent habitat. I mean, the water's running crystal clear. And if I had a wet suit, we could go in there, and there's probably hundreds of juvenile steelhead in some of these pools.

BANSE: No miners are working here today. Nawa gingerly picks his way down a streamside trail with hiking poles. He finds discarded tires in the water, but he's most upset by evidence someone excavated deep into the stream bank. That's not allowed by the Forest Service. But given the limited enforcement resources, Nawa wishes the government would just evict the miners from spawning streams entirely.

Mr. NAWA: The winter rains will come, and because the streambed's been disturbed, it will try to move the gravel around, and doing so will destroy the eggs that have been buried by the salmon.

BANSE: Nawa's group, The Siskiyou Project, has twice filed suit against the Forest Service to get tougher standards for in-stream mining. In Northern California, an Indian tribe has also gone to court. The mining community perceives the lawsuits as an attempt to drive them out through regulation. In Idaho and California, miners sued back. The end result, more or less status quo.

Looming on the horizon is the increasing price of gold. Some Pacific Northwest miners expect a new gold rush if prices rise further. For NPR News, I'm Tom Banse near Grant's Pass, Oregon.

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