Saturday, August 21, 2010

State Senator wants to ban suction dredges

Suction dredge mining once occurred primarily on remote streams and rivers. Its proliferation on one of the most populous and visible stretches of the Rogue River could lead to the mining method being banned in Oregon.

State Senator Jason Atkinson (R-Central Point) standing on the banks of the Rogue watching about a dozen suction dredge mining operations:
 “I’ve seen what they do to rivers in California and it’s not going to happen in Oregon.”
In an article in the August 20 Medford Mail Tribune entitled “Declaring war on dredging,” Senator Atkinson discussed his concerns about suction dredge mining. He’s vowing to introduce legislation banning the mining of river and streambeds with these floating gasoline powered machines—some of which can weigh a ton or more.

Before the state of California temporarily banned the mining of their rivers with dredges and before the price of gold rose to such high levels, miners operated in remote, often pristine, stretches of streams in the Siskiyou Mountains. Out of sight and mind, the miners more often than not ignored laws and regulations and trashed stream ecosystems with impunity. This is harder to do on populous stretches of the Rogue River, with its high recreation use and homes lining its banks.

The public now gets to see what was once only happening in the outback and they don’t like it. The Rogue Riverkeeper program at the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands office has fielded a dozen or more irate complaints about the mining on the Rogue. A white water guide wrote in response to the August 20 Oregonian editorial supporting Senator Atkinson’s call for a ban on suction dredge mining:

“I have several photos taken of these miners committing violations to their permit during the past few weeks, and one in particular sums up what I have been witnessing: A miner, while smoking a cigarette, refueled his suction dredge with a can of gasoline in the river (illegal) and then proceeded to throw the cigarette butt into the river. Ignorant and disrespectful!”

And this is nothing compared to what happens in remote areas out of the public eye.

Under the Bush Administration, both the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management weakened their surface mining regulations. Additionally, with two memos, the Minerals and Geology Department of the Forest Service gutted the mining rules of the Northwest Forest Plan, put in place to protect streams and rivers and threatened and declining salmon and steelhead populations.

In the 1990’s the sweeping Plan underwent intensive scientific analysis, extensive public participation and numerous legal challenges. However, the Obama Administration has done nothing to undo the Bush reversals of 8 years and the dominance of mining on Oregon’s priceless steelhead and salmon rivers flowing through national forest and BLM lands.
Currently, on Forest Service lands, mine operators don’t even have to tell the agency that they “are” mining—let alone where—unless they (the miners) “reasonably conclude” their operation could have a significant impact. On the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest there’s essentially one full time staff person to monitor mining operation across well over a million acres of remote rugged terrain and one of the highest densities of rivers and streams in the Northwest.

Senator Atkinson is rightfully frustrated with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, which issues general permits for instream mining. Please write to the Senator in support of legislation to ban suction dredge mining on Oregon’s streams and rivers. He'll hear from the miners. He needs to hear from those who want our rivers protected, not mined.

While ODEQ is the agency principally in charge of the highly visible Rogue River—where it flows through private, state and county land—the Forest Service, BLM and the Obama Administration should not be let off the hook. They’re in charge of most of southwest Oregon’s treasured National Wild and Scenic Rivers and their tributaries.

It’s these rivers and smaller streams, especially their most productive low gradient reaches, which miners most often target. They're some of the most valuable salmon and steelhead habitat in the United States.

In the recent closure of an approximately 25,000 acre area around Oak Flat Fire, burning in the Briggs Creek Watershed, the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest estimated they would have to evacuate about 90 miners! Briggs Creek is an important tributary of the National Wild and Scenic Illinois River, a major contributor to the lower Rogue’s world class fishery.

In closing, thanks and acknowledgment must also go to the Oregonian Editorial Board for their position that Oregon's streams and rivers are ever bit as deserving of protection from this destructive mining practice as those in California. Read: "On river dredging, California has it right." Then go to the "what you can do page."