Seeking early season fishing, I headed for small streams high up in the North Central Cascades. I found a spot, along Scotty Creek, with a few riffles and a deep pool. As I gingerly walked into the stream, I looked upstream for my first cast. There was a man upstream. I waved and he nodded. Wanting to make sure I wasn’t stepping into his spot, I walked upstream to talk with him. As I got closer I noticed the man was running what looked like a shop-vac in the stream and swirling around my legs was a plume of chocolate colored water.
He was mining for gold with a suction dredge.
Suction dredges are essentially gas powered floating shop-vacs. A large nozzle (generally 4”in diameter) sucks up gravel and sediment, then the dredge runs it through a sluice. The sediment and lighter gravel are deposited in long plumes downstream while the heavier metals such as gold, rest in the sluice. Miners who work areas that have been mined, also disturb significant amounts of mercury, used years ago to amalgamate gold flecks into nuggets.
“What are you doing here?” he asked me.
While it seemed obvious to me, I told him I was fishing.
“No fish in these streams. And, besides, this is private property.”
I tried to explain that we were both on Forest Service land, but he pointed to a hand painted sign nailed to a Ponderosa pine: NCWP Mining Claim.
Deciding not to engage in a confrontation, I went back to my truck and spent the next few months researching suction dredge mining.
As the price of gold began to rise in the last decade, hobby miners began to see profit in vacuuming up streams where there “may be gold.” All over the West, the drone of Honda engines floating on pontoons, could be heard as miners sought gold.
In 2009, led by the Karuk Tribe’s threatened lawsuit, the California legislature enacted and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law, a moratorium on all suction dredging. The Karuks maintained that suction dredging had impacts on fish, particularly salmon and steelhead, as well as invertebrates throughout stream systems. They asserted that California’s system of regulation failed to take those impacts into account. The moratorium, recently renewed by Governor Brown, gives the state time to evaluate impacts and promulgate rules that actually protect fish and habitat.
In tandem with the state legislative action, the Karuks sued the US Forest Service alleging that the Forest Service has an obligation under § 7 of the Endangered Species Act to seek biological opinions from National Marine Fisheries Service or the US Fish and Wildlife Service upon receipt of a Notice of Intent to mine from the suction dredgers. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for the Karuks.
After the California moratorium, California miners moved north to Oregon, running suction dredges below the expensive homes along the Rogue and in fragile steelhead spawning streams of the Umpqua. Cascadia Wild worked closely with Oregon legislators and in July 2013, Oregon enacted a moratorium similar to California’s, creating a mechanism for the state to study and understand the impacts of suction dredging on streams, fish, and other wildlife.
Meanwhile in Idaho, miners nailed signs to trees along the North Fork of the Clearwater, claiming mining rights as well as posting that the land was private property. But it wasn’t. It was US Forest Service land. Our land. Then the mining claims were found on eBay. The fly fishing community swung into action, supporting the US Forest Service in using provisions of the National Forest Management Act which allows the Forest Service to deny mining claims if the Forest Service believes the mining would interfere with other multiple uses of the forest. Also in Idaho, the Environmental Protection Agency, tasked with enforcing the Clean Water Act in Idaho (most states are delegated by the EPA to enforce the CWA, but Idaho chose not to accept the delegation), promulgated new and tougher regulations for suction dredge permits and denied permits on critical habit for steelhead and other fish species.
Amazingly, Washington State lags behind. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is “tasked” with regulating in-stream mining. In 2009 WDFW published the “Gold and Fish” pamphlet, which outlines what equipment miners can use, has 20 pages of spreadsheets listing every river and stream throughout the state, and delineates the windows when miners can use suction dredgers or other equipment on those streams. No licensing fee is required.
Here is the “kicker.” If a miner wants to mine outside of the Gold and Fish windows, he can apply for a hydraulic permit, also without paying any fee, and routinely (only one permit application has been denied) obtain a permit to use a suction dredge in long extended time periods.
In other words, it’s the wild west in Washington. And unlike California, Oregon, and Idaho, Washington doesn’t even know how many miners are altering the rivers because as long as the miner is “following” the Gold and Fish Pamphlet, they don’t even register with the state.
In order to “get at the gold,” suction dredge miners routinely winch out boulders and other in-stream structure, create weirs and barriers, and alter the streams. They do this on streams that have been listed as critical habitat for steelhead, salmon, Bull trout: Wenatchee, Peshastin, Nason, Icicle, Methow, Early Winters, Simikameen, Klickitat, Stilliguamish…
The miners will tell you there is no fish in the streams or that fish swarm to the nozzles of the suction dredges, feasting off the nymphs that the suction dredges raise. They say it’s a hobby and they have property right to do it.
No one has the right to destroy the millions of dollars taxpayers have spent in stream restoration and enhancement projects trying, desperately, to bring back native anadromous species.
It’s time, now, for Washington State to show the same leadership Oregon and California have demonstrated. To hit the “pause” button on suction dredging, to engage the best scientific and policy minds in order to determine the impacts of dredging on our fragile and critical habitat for steelhead, salmon, and Bull trout. In the end it may mean tighter regulations, more enforcement, better coordination between the State and Federal agencies, and a database of mining claims and suction dredge permits so that all of use can be aware of where this type of mining occurs and ensure the miners follow the rules.
And on January 17th, 2014, Representative Gael Tarleton, (D – 36), dropped House Bill 3508 that will require Washington State to prohibit suction dredging on all streams (and the tributaries) that are listed as critical habitat by federal agencies. The legislation also proposes charging miners a licensing fee of $150 (currently they pay no licensing fees). It’s a start. Rep. Tarleton thinks it’s unlikely it will gain traction in this legislative session.
But whatever the result, it’s time to change the Gold and Fish free-for-all.
Kim McDonald grew up along the Nisqually River where she thought a really big fish was a guppy. She learned to fly fish on the legendary waters in Roscoe, New York which definitely didn’t prepare her for the cold Northwest winters steelheading. She has degrees in law and forestry. Kim currently resides in Seattle and Cashmere, Washington, where she takes her three labs out fly fishing as often as possible. She is currently working on a “pop-up” non profit to hit the pause button on suction dredge mining in Washington state. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org