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Gold vs. Salmon: Fish Advocates, Miners Face Off in Rural Washington

December 22, 2015

Outdoorsmen emerge from their tents and truck beds in the early morning light. After a big breakfast, they ready dry suits, diving masks, air hoses and a contraption that looks like a small pontoon boat.
This group is carrying on the age-old tradition of small-scale gold mining. Their method of choice is known as suction dredging.

Small scale gold miner Sean Wheeler operates a 4-inch hydraulic dredge in central Washington’s Peshastin Creek.

“People have been prospecting for gold since prehistoric times,” miner Ron Larson says. “Gold has always lured mankind and man has always chased it. We feel a connection to those early miners.”
Larson and his mining partner, Sean Wheeler, connect a gas-powered motor and a series of hoses and clamps to the pontoon. With a few tugs of the starter cord, the machine roars to life.
While Larson oversees the motor, Wheeler dons his diving gear and plunges into the water of Peshastin Creek. He clears rocks and small boulders from the streambed into neat piles alongside the stream and then begins to vacuum the creek bed.

The water and sediment rush through the hose back to the main part of the dredge and spill out over a series of baffles that look like a huge washboard. “Gold is heavier than every other mineral in the stream,” says Larson. “So it will fall and get trapped in the grooves while the rest of the sediment goes back into the river.”
Hydraulic — or suction — dredges allow miners to go through many times more sediment than a traditional gold pan. Over the last few decades they have emerged as the preferred tool for most serious miners. But their activities haven’t gone without notice.

Calling For Tighter Controls

Beginning in California, where portable gold dredges first became popular in the 1990s, environmentalists, anglers and native tribes have built an activist movement against suction dredging. They contend it degrades fish habitat and causes water and noise pollution. It’s a movement that’s been steadily growing throughout the West.

In 2009, California enacted a statewide moratorium on dredging. Oregon’s own ban on motorized mining takes effect Jan. 2, 2016. In Idaho, pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency resulted in severe restrictions on dredging that outlaw the practice in nearly every watershed. And north of the border in British Columbia, the government has banned dredging pending further study.

Though other states like Colorado and Alaska also allow dredging in many of their waterways, the fight is now concentrated on Washington State, where a relatively hands-off regulatory system has led to an increase in mining activity. This has in turn angered fishermen, environmentalists and some legislators. These opponents have formed their own organization: Fish Not Gold. Their goals are to expose the harm that dredging causes to fish habitat and to either completely rewrite the rules on dredging or shut down the practice for good.

(From left) Trout Unlimited Field Coordinator Gregg Bafundo, Restoration Ecologist Crystal Eliot-Perez and Fish Not Gold Campaign Director Kim McDonald survey streambed impacts from recent dredging activity. Marc Pingry

On a hot dry day in Washington’s Central Cascades, representatives from the environmental advocacy groups Fish Not Gold and Trout Unlimited unload their trucks and begin hiking into prime dredging territory.

Within minutes they come across a recently dredged section of river. It’s not a pretty sight.

“This looks like a bomb went off,” says Trout Unlimited Field Coordinator Gregg Bafundo as he inspects a crater-like hole full of stagnant water. An overturned bucket resting on a log bears the message “No dredging this hole!” indicating a miner will be back to suction up its contents.

Farther upstream the team encounters an active dredging operation. They unpack a water thermometer and a cylindrical contraption called a turbidity meter and begin testing the amount of sediment in the water. Excess sediment can cause oxygen levels to decrease and water temperatures to rise to levels that are dangerous for fish.

This stretch of water shows a turbidity reading almost four times higher than farther downstream. It’s not enough to kill fish, but the team is concerned about the cumulative impacts of all of the dredging throughout the watershed. And unlike other recreational pursuits, the impacts of gold mining aren’t being tracked by the state. “They get to fly under the radar,” Bafundo says.

An adult steelhead digs a crevice into a streambed to deposit fish eggs into the gravel. Environmentalists worry dredging can upset the spawning cycle by disturbing these deposits.

Washington's Dredging History

When Washington first enacted rules on small-scale mining in 1980, they were among the most stringent in the country. Current regulations stipulate that miners can only dredge outside of spawning times and only in the part of the river with the greatest flow. They can only use hoses up to a 4-inch diameter and must stay at least 200 feet from other dredging operations. When they’re done, they must refill any holes they made, restoring the river to the state in which they found it. 
Critics say they these rules aren’t being enforced. Miners don’t have to undergo the scrutiny of a permitting process unless the scope of their project is larger than these rules allow. No state resources are dedicated to monitoring mining in rivers. As a result, the government has almost no data on the impact of dredging and no way to track how much mining is actually taking place and where.
But miners counter that such criticism is unwarranted. 
“If you add up the total miles of waters in Washington and divide that by the total miles of mining claims, you get a number lower than .02 percent,” Larson says, citing his own research; such data is not available from the state.
Miners Sean Wheeler (left) and Ron Larson secure the motor to Larson’s hydraulic dredge. Dredges allow miners to process up to forty times more sediment than a traditional gold pan. Marc Pingry
Miners contend they actually help the environment by removing trash and debris from streams and rivers and providing cool areas of deeper water for fish to inhabit. 
Scientists are a little more skeptical of their activities. Mark Johnston, a fish biologist for the Yakama Nation Fisheries, worries that a lack of oversight may be contributing to loss of fish habitat.
“[Miners] get into those soft gravel areas where fish dig in and lay their eggs,” Johnston says. That’s a problem even outside of spawning season because after the adult fish spawn, they die and become part of the food web, providing important nutrients for the juvenile fish that emerge.
“Sometimes the holes that miners create do help fish to escape warmer waters,” Johnson says. “But typically they cause upwelling that makes it harder for juvenile fish to reach the nutrient-rich gravels they depend on to survive.”
The scientists and anglers looking to change mining laws have a tough road ahead, one that involves overcoming federal mining laws. The Mining Act of 1872 protects mining claims even on public property. Miners have held onto the law as proof of their right to the minerals on their claims. But anti-dredging movements in the West — and the increasing effects of climate change — may be catching up with the miners.
Mark Johnston, a fish biologist with the Yakama Nation was among the first scientists to study the impact of suction dredging. He worries the lack of a permit system encourages miners to ignore mining regulations. Marc Pingry

Last summer’s drought raised water temperatures and reduced flows in rivers throughout the Northwest, creating conditions that were lethal to fish. In response, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife enacted emergency restrictions closing many popular dredging spots for several weeks.
People like Fish Not Gold Director Kim McDonald would like to see these kind of restrictions become permanent.
“Nearly every river in the state has fish that are going extinct,” McDonald says. “Since the 1990s we’ve been talking about what we can do about it. Should we tear down dams? Should we do away with hatchery fish? This is something we can do.”

Gold Fever

Back on Peshastin Creek, miners Ron Larson and Sean Wheeler shut down their dredge and the quiet trickle of the stream can once again be heard. After a few minutes of carefully searching through the baffles, Larson spots what he’s looking for.

“Oh yes, I believe it is!” he says as he pulls a small shiny rock out into the sunlight. The glint of the metal is unmistakable — gold. Larson estimates its value at about $50, less than the cost of the gas to get to the site. But for miners like Larson, it’s worth it.

“Gold fever is very real,” he says. “It’s like an addiction and it keeps you coming back.”  

He swears that as long as there’s gold in these rivers, he and other miners will keep coming back. “When we’re faced with losing a way of life that we’ve had for so long it brings us together. And we’ll keep fighting the fight.”

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Several Hundred dollars worth of Washington-mined nuggets. Suction dredges help miners retrieve gold early pioneers couldn’t.

Marc Pingry

Nils Cowan

A native of Calgary, Canada who cut his teeth in the documentary industry of Washington, D.C., Nils moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2009 after working on a National Park Service film about Mt. Rainier and falling in love with the area. He has been producing non-fiction content for thirteen years, from broadcast and independent documentaries to museum films and non-profit PSAs. One of his most recent films, 'Beyond the Visible’ which reveals the inner workings and transformational science of the Very Large Array Telescope in New Mexico, was just awarded the 2014 Cine Golden Eagle Award for non-fiction storytelling.  Nils lives in Seattle with his wife and two kids.

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