Upset over stricter mining regulations imposed by the passage of state Senate Bill 838, a group of about 10 disgruntled miners protested Friday outside the Medford medical office of Sen. Alan Bates, D-Medford.
The bill, co-sponsored by Bates, was strongly backed by the environmental camp and vigorously opposed by the mining community before signed into law by Gov. John Kitzhaber on Aug. 14.
"They say we're evil miners killing the fish. I say the same thing I've been telling environmentalists forever, 'Show me a peer-reviewed scientific study that shows what harm we cause.' There is no science to back that," said Rick Barclay, 55, of Ruch.
Barclay said he has rights to three claims on the Applegate River and acquires about half his income from mining.
"When did we start writing laws based on gut feelings instead of science?" said Daniel Collins, 46, of Happy Camp, Calif. "They want to portray us as recreational miners who aren't serious, but I make my living off mining."
Collins partners with Derek Eimer, 47, of Happy Camp, on three claims they hold on Galice and Chieftain creeks in Southern Oregon.
"We've pulled out a pound of gold so far this year. That's not recreational mining," Eimer said. "We have a legal right to those minerals."
Bates called the small-scale protest an "overreaction."
"We're not trying to hammer people with this, we're trying to do something reasonable for everybody," Bates said. "There used to be just a few suction dredge miners, now there are hundreds. ... We are not saying no dredging ... but we are concerned about what that does to the rivers. I felt the issue needed to be addressed."
On the Senate floor, Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, voted against the bill, while senators Fred Girod, R-Stayton, and Bruce Starr, R-Hillsboro, voted yes. No other senators crossed party lines, and the bill passed the Senate July 3.
In the House on July 7, Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, joined all of the House Republicans in voting no, while the remaining Democrats voted to pass the bill to Kitzhaber.
Suction dredge mining employs a vacuum to suck up gravel from a stream bottom. Materials from the river bottom then go through a sluice to allow miners to strain out gold and other heavy metals.
Many miners contend there are already sufficient laws in place that limit dredging while salmon are spawning, and that dredging outside the spawning period is nothing but good for salmon runs, because sucking up and replacing the river bed creates gravel areas for fish to spawn in.
Ken Morrish, of Ashland, and owner of Fly Water Travel, which sets up guided fishing trips on Southern Oregon streams and around the globe, said dredging is unhealthy for rivers and the fish in them.
"Not only does dredging have negative impacts on the health of our rivers and the health of our fisheries ... it also has a negative impact on our tourism industry," he said. "Does there need to be a study to show that suction dredging is unhealthy for a stream? No, it's so commonsensical it doesn't need to be questioned."
Morrish also contends that the hundreds of full-time fishing-guide services in Southern Oregon are more crucial to the local economy than miners pulling valuable minerals from Oregon's streams.
"California and Idaho did not outlaw suction dredging because it's good for the economy and rivers, they did it because it's bad," Morrish said. "People come here to fish because they value the quality of our wild rivers. ... It's common biological, scientific knowledge that increased sediment loads are harmful to fish in rivers ... mining kicks up sediment." Beginning in 2014, the new law sets a limit of 850 permits for suction dredge mining on Oregon's salmon-bearing rivers and their tributaries, and where naturally reproducing bull trout are present, matching the level allowed in 2009. Roughly 2,400 permits are allowed this year. In addition, the law implements stricter restrictions on where, when and how dredging can occur.
However, if the additional protections aren't in place by the end of 2015, the law requires a five-year moratorium on suction dredge mining to go into effect while the protections are implemented.
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality reported it issued 1,205 dredging permits in 2011, a 30-percent increase from the previous year. Permit holders in Oregon who list California as their address increased from 51 in 2011 to 85 in 2012, according to the state.
Supporters of the bill say the number of mining dredges being used in Oregon increased dramatically following new restrictions in California and Idaho, driving miners to the Beaver State. In 2009, California placed a moratorium on suction dredge mining in that state, citing its impacts on the salmon population. New federal permit requirements in Idaho have reduced dredging there.
Bates said the sharp increase in permits issued over the last few years is a significant reason why he co-sponsored Senate Bill 838.
"No one group can say we own this river, so we're going to do what we want," Bates said. "We're still willing to tweak things ... but something had to be done."
Sam Wheeler is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.