Protecting Oregon’s Rivers from Suction Dredge Mining

Editorial by the Register-Guard
March 4, 2013
Nearly a quarter century has passed since Oregon last updated the State Scenic Waterways Program, which increases protection for the state’s most treasured rivers and limits destructive activities such as suction-dredge mining.
The program, overwhelmingly approved by state voters in 1970, is long overdue for an update — especially in light of a recent surge in suction dredge mining on the state’s waterways, including the Rogue, Chetco and Illinois rivers.

State Sen. Alan Bates, D-Ashland, has introduced a bill that would expand the inventory of rivers in the scenic system to 30 from the current 19. It’s a modest yet strategically important proposal that would provide protection for one-half of 1 percent of the state’s rivers and streams, up from a current one-third of 1 percent. That’s hardly a conservation overreach, especially given the threat posed by suction-dredge mining.

Protected by a ludicrously outdated and environmentally indifferent 1872 federal mining law, miners have descended on some of Oregon’s wildest rivers with motorized suction dredges to search for gold and other minerals. The dredges suck up rocks and gravel from stream bottoms and dump them in a floating sluice. The gold sinks and is trapped, while the remainder is returned to the river or its banks.

Suction-dredge miners insist they’re merely rearranging the river bottom and are improving fish habitat. The opposite is true. Dredging fills spaces that oxygenate the water and provide habitat for insects that fish eat. Mining clouds normally clear rivers with fine sediment and unearths mercury deposits buried on the river bottom.

Several years ago the California Legislature wisely imposed a moratorium on suction dredging to give state fish and wildlife officials time to study the effects of mining on fish habitat and to devise new regulations.

Oregon lawmakers should have done the same to protect the state’s rivers and fish stocks. They failed to do so despite the urging of lawmakers such as then-state Sen. Jason Atkinson, a Central Point Republican and avid outdoorsman who minced no words in describing the damage caused by suction dredge prospectors: “They ruin — destroy — spawning habitat,” he said.

With California’s rivers off-limits to suction dredging until 2016, miners have turned to the rivers of Southwest Oregon, which feature some of the finest runs of salmon and steelhead in the lower 48 states. Miners have staked out claims along the Chetco, South Kalmiopsis, Illinois and Rogue rivers. A few have ventured as far north as the Metolius and John Day, as well as Quartz Creek, a tributary of the McKenzie River.

Bates’ bill would protect the Chetco, Rogue, Illinois and other Southern Oregon rivers that have been at the center of the dredge mining debate. It would also protect other waterways, including the Metolius, John Day, Grand Ronde, Sandy, Middle Fork Willamette and Yachats rivers, as well a portion of the upper McKenzie that is not already listed as an Oregon Scenic Waterway.

If these and other rivers proposed by Bates are added to the scenic waterways system, protection would extend to land a quarter mile on each side. Mining, logging, road building, construction of new buildings and other activities in those corridors would be subject to review by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (existing development would not be affected and property owners would retain the right to use land outside the corridor).

Suction dredge mining has no place in Oregon waterways, and Bates’ bill is on target. The Legislature should give it careful consideration, reviewing the rivers proposed for protection and considering additions, and then take the necessary action to protect the state’s rivers.


5 thoughts on “Protecting Oregon’s Rivers from Suction Dredge Mining

  1. Scott says:

    Once again…the propaganda is cranked up. I am a fisherman and also a former member of Trout Unlimited. I know more of the truth about the political spin in the article than many. I am also a small scale dredge operator. I was also on the workgroup that spent 2 years writing the small scale mining regulations for the State of Washington. 
    When the repoters start going into the field and actually see what the small dredge operators are really doing…I will believe your stories. Until then…you are continuing to spread the false political misleading information that gets donations to the people that cry…The Sky is Falling.
    Please spend a little time investigating your stories. I worked on a newspaper when I was in college and we would nver report such inaccurate information as you have done in this story. It is easy to just further the false propaganda instead of spending time in the streams.
    Oh…by the way…I helped plant 93,000 baby chum salmon last spring working with WDFW to restore fish stocks in SW Washington. Get your stories straight for a change and people may begin to trust the articles you print.

  2. bob says:

    Scott, Suction dredging is not only a wildly unpopular activity performed by an extremely narrow segment of the population, it is also widely regarded as a damaging activity by fisheries scientists. There is a big difference between what dredgers characterize as temporary and localized damage and no damage. What might be considered temporary and localized by a dredger in reality could make a critical difference to the life cycle of imperiled salmon, steelhead or one of their food resources. People actually trust our blog posts just fine. Thank.

    Bob Ferris

  3. Sean says:

    Bob, first off popular opinion of an activity isn't enough to end an activity no matter how much you dislike it, but thank you for pointing out how small of a user group engages in this activity. Its hard to believe that millions of dollars are being spent trying to rid the West of an activity that has a user group of just .05% of the Oregon population and takes place for only 2-3 months out of the entire year.  Secondly, multiple studies have characterized dredging as "de minimis" and "less than significant".  These government agencies are the ones who characterized the effects as temporary and localized, we are just restating their findings.  You offer no evidence in your article to support your claims only emotional conjecture from  Mr Atkinson.  As far as the new Wild and Scenic designations, I fail to see how the downtown sections of Grants Pass, Gold Hill and Rogue River are anything special to look at, but all three towns are included in the proposed designation, with thousands of property owners at risk of State regulation.

  4. bob says:

    Actually one of the first steps in any credible cost-benefit analysis should look at numbers of people benefiting from an action versus number of people impacted. This strikes me as a core principle of democracy. Professional ichthyologists would disagree with your characterization of impacts. This is why the Sierra Nevada Chapter of the American Fisheries Society wrote a letter urging the California to continue to impose their moratorium. I am a wildlife biologist but started out studying ichthyology and would concur with their stance after looking at the body of work on this topic and understanding that it is complicated systems where impacts can happen during times that fish are not present. As to the designation, Wild and Scenic is a federal designation, we are seeking a Scenic Waterways designation which is state based. As to a few areas in the listing that do not appear to you as scenic I would say that this: Perhaps you are not looking at what they could be and that is important and wont happen if they continue to be exposed to commercial uses posing as hobbies.

    Bob Ferris

  5. mark says:

    it is amazing how single minded people are, i've dredged in the same area for over 20 years and the stealhead and trout have not depleted but have doubled, we remove the mercury that comes from the veins that cross the river. let alone all the lead sinkers and such from all fishermen who are not hurting the enviroment like us dredgers. you can get reports that go any way you want, it all depends on how the "scientist" is inclined greeny or not. It is public land an should be open to ALL not just to favorite few at the time….

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