When Equal is not Equal You Need a Timeout


By Bob Ferris

During the recent suction dredge hearings Senator Olsen made a point of comparing suction dredgers and river guides as if they were equivalent entities with equal or similar impacts—both plus or minus.  Although I praise him for trying to show that there are two sides to this coin we are really talking about two very different coins.  But since the Senator opened the door, I would say that it would make sense to do some comparisons between the two enterprise types.
One of the themes emphasized by the suction dredge miners during the hearing was one of burdensome regulations that were impacting their operations.  The miners repeatedly tried to characterize themselves as victims and how their regulatory hindrance was much larger than most.  But when compared to river guides and outfitters this does not seem to be the case, as we can see above.  
The validity of pushing this equivalency issue becomes even more tortured when one looks at the economic activity associated with river guides and outfitters and the magnitudes of the population sectors served.  The economic comparisons become difficult because while some studies on the economics of clean river associated economic activity have been done in Oregon the same is not true for suction dredging.  So we have to look for surrogates and make some educated assumptions as we sort through the apples and oranges of these analyses.
Right now suction dredge permits in Oregon stand at around 2400.  In California when they did their analysis on suction dredgers (2010) they had approximately 3500 permit holders that were responsible for the creation of nearly 50 full and part-time jobs as well as $2.5 million in personal income and a little less than $124 thousand in sales tax revenue (see table 5 in Socioeconomic Report in Suction Dredge Permit Program Environmental Impact Report).   As it is likely valid for ball park figures to assume that the Oregon experience will be somewhat similar, these figures applied against Oregon’s 2400 permits will likely translate into 34 jobs and $170 thousand in personal income with nothing in the sales tax column. By comparison, If we look at just the 84-mile Wild and Scenic portion of the Rogue River we observe that waterway in 2008 was estimated to be producing 445 full and part-time jobs and $15.4 million in personal income—more than an order of magnitude above suction dredging’s entire contribution across all rivers on the California economy (see Regional Economic Impacts of Recreation on the Wild and Scenic Rogue River)
“Both rafting and fishing participants were found to experience a high degree of conflict with suction dredging. For rafters, conflicts arise from noise, engine exhaust, and the physical presence of dredgers in the waterway. Fishing participants are affected by access barriers (including intimidation, lack of parking, equipment conflicts), safety issues (e.g., dredge holes), and localized effects on fish caused by turbidity and disturbances. Suction dredging can conflict with other recreational uses, such as hiking, picnicking, and camping, by generating noise and engine exhaust in the vicinity of recreationists. Because these activities generate recreation-related spending, conflicts can potentially reduce use levels and associated economic effects in regional and local economies.” Socio-economic Report in Suction Dredge Permit Program Environmental Impact Report.
We could slice and dice these numbers and look at per capita analyses or other evaluations but in essence we have a big economic number (many times bigger than the Rogue figures once those figures are extrapolated across the Oregon waterways) that is likely put at some unknown risk by a much, much smaller number.  Since the level of this small activity and its associated risk are rapidly accelerating in the face of significant knowledge gaps, inadequate regulation and wrong-size oversight infrastructure, prudency demands that we take a moment until we fully understand the consequences and can get our ducks in a row.  And that is exactly what we are asking for with SB 838—a timeout.