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Oregon Gold Miners Face Moratorium If Lawmakers Don’t Act

Jes Burns

The legislatures of Washington and Oregon both have bills in front of them that could limit suction dredge mining. The gold mining technique uses large floating vacuums to suck up rocky streambeds and sift out precious metals. If Oregon lawmakers don’t act this session, miners will be forced to pack up their dredges and go elsewhere.

There are very few spots that are more significant in the lore of mining in Oregon than Josephine Creek. The way miner Tom Kitchar tells it, it was here that a group of white settlers first discovered gold in the state.

Tom Kitchar “Supposedly they ran into some Indians somewhere in this area and the Indians showed them a spot where they could find funny yellow metal.”

That discovery helped trigger a gold rush in Southern Oregon and the formation of the Waldo Mining District in the 1850s. Kitchar is the current President of the Waldo District, and for him its history is his history.

Tom Kitchar: “We were the government in this area, and the miners made their own rules. We could hang people. We could condemn your property so I could dump tailings in your living room. Nothing could get in the way of mining - in those days.”

Kitchar’s laugh is a bit rueful as he smokes a cigarette on the bridge overlooking still-gold rich Josephine Creek. For the past two decades, he’s been fighting to keep his livelihood alive.

Kitchar owns a suction dredge and spends his summers immersed in chilly rivers and streams, sucking holes to the bedrock to find gold. He contends that federal mining law gives him the right to mine his claims.

Credit Jes Burns / Earthfix
Josephine Creek where it meets the Illinois River in Southern Oregon was one of the first places gold was discovered by settlers in Oregon.

John Mellgren is with the Western Environmental Law Center.

John Mellgren: “The mining laws are all very old. What a lot of miners are relying upon are laws from the 1800s, whereas environmental laws are much more recent. So theoretically they’re supposed to work in concert together, but there are some conflicts.”

Like just how states are allowed regulate mining. Lawmakers in the Northwest are wading into that debate.

Jeremiah Osborne-Gowey: “How do we go about go about balancing the values placed for taking my kids out and mining for gold versus taking my kids out and going fishing for fish that may be there?”

That’s a concern of fish ecologist Jeremiah Osborne-Gowey. He says in the short-term, suction dredge mining can hurt salmon and bull trout. It stirs up sediment and destabilizes the streambed where fish lay their eggs. But beyond that, the science is very thin.

Jeremiah Osborne-Gowey: “There haven’t been many studies looking at cumulative long-term impacts. Some of the mining interest may claim there’s nothing in the literature that shows that and they are accurate. But that doesn’t mean that there is not the potential for long-term cumulative impacts.”

A study group convened last year by then-governor John Kitzhaber’s office took this thinking to heart. It recommended lawmakers take a precautionary approach, which meant further restricting suction dredge mining on private and public waterways. The study group’s findings were supposed to lead to new legislation, but nothing materialized before Kitzhaber resigned.

The only substantive bill before the legislature favors miners, and was introduced by Republican Senator Brian Boquist.

Brian Boquist: “You have one side up on the table and aired in public, and what we really want to do is get the other side up and see where is common ground.”

But that other side may not come. Governor Kate Brown’s office would not say if she planned to continue her predecessor’s work on the issue. If she doesn’t, and the legislature doesn’t push through a new law this term, a five-year moratorium on suction dredge mining will go into effect.

Credit Jes Burns / Earthfix
Southern Oregon continues to produce gold, more than 150 years after the initial gold rush in the state.

That could be devastating for miner Tom Kitchar.

Tom Kitchar: “Then basically everything I’ve worked for since I’ve moved out here in the mid 1980s has been for nothing. My claims will be worthless because no one’s going to buy mining claims that you can’t mine on. Not only that, I will be homeless. I live on a mining claim. And I can only live on a mining claim if I’m actively mining.”

But Kitchar acknowledges that mining has always been a risky industry rife with booms and busts. Now, he says, the risky part isn’t locating the gold. It’s whether you can get permission to stick your dredge in the water.

Copyright 2015 Earthfix

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