GRANTS PASS — A bill to put a five-year moratorium on using suction dredges to mine for gold in key salmon streams is moving through the Oregon Legislature.
By a 3-2 vote Wednesday night, the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee referred the bill, Senate Bill 838, to the Joint Ways and Means Committee for further consideration.
Co-sponsor Sen. Alan Bates, a Medford Democrat, says new federal permit requirements in Idaho and a state moratorium in California are pushing thousands of small-scale gold miners to Oregon, primarily the southwestern corner of the state that was home to the 1850s Gold Rush.
He says the moratorium will give time to study how the motorized dredges affect water quality and salmon.
"I still think there is a middle ground that will allow a place for miners to go if they are careful and follow the right regulations," Bates said.
"Neither side is willing to come together and talk to each other. People sitting before the committee were raising their voices. The miners feel strongly. I understand that."
Bates said he was not sure the bill had the votes to clear the Senate, but he was particularly moved by a report from scientists with the Oregon Chapter of the American Fisheries Society who pointed out threats to salmon from the dredges, which suck gravel from river bottoms through a hose, and sift the sand and rocks for flecks of gold left behind by miners going back more than a a hundred years. They advised that existing regulations can be effective only by strict monitoring and enforcement.
In written testimony submitted to the committee, miners said fish and water quality already were protected by existing regulations; a moratorium would kill an industry worth millions of dollars and put a financial hardship on miners who depend on gold to feed and clothe their families, they said. The state had no authority to restrict work on mining claims on federal land, they added.
Jan Alexander, a retired U.S. Forest Service mining administrator from Unity, wrote that the Forest Service closely regulates gold mining to protect fish, wildlife and water quality, and after discovering gold, miners typically move out of the river into side channels.
Josh Laughlin of the conservation group Cascadia Wildlands praised the bills, saying he found it incredible that the state and federal governments spent millions of dollars a year on restoring salmon, only to let miners suck gravel off of stream bottoms.
A companion bill — SB 401 — also cleared the committee.
The bill would make clear that suction dredge mining is prohibited on state scenic rivers and designate a number of key salmon streams to be studied for state scenic waterway protection.