The head of the Galice Mining District says some miners are violating a new state ban on suction-dredge mining, telling the state of Oregon to "drop dead" while the two sides square off in a federal court case.
Rick Barclay, the mining district's president, told the Mail Tribune he knows of about a dozen suction dredgers now defying the five-year dredging moratorium that went into effect Jan. 2, claiming federal mining laws trump state regulations.
Barclay said the miners are working claims on federal lands in Rogue River Basin tributary streams that flow seasonally in winter, making winter the only time they can work enough to keep their claims for precious metals, mainly gold.
"We prefer to think of it as the great American tradition of civil disobedience," Barclay said Thursday. "Those are federal claims mined under federal law. The state can drop dead."
Barclay declined to name the miners or the streams they are dredging. He said the district intends to inform state officials that federal law grants the district the authority to regulate mining within its boundaries, which encompass Jackson, Josephine and Douglas counties.
"We're basically saying we can do what we want. Take us to court to see if we can't," Barclay said.
"If they discover where (miners are) working, they can do whatever they want to do," he said.
Oregon State police Sgt. Jim Collom said Thursday his agency has not received any complaints of active dredging in the Rogue Basin. Collom said he has briefed Fish and Wildlife Division troopers on the moratorium, which bans all suction dredge mining in Oregon through 2021 after the 2015 Oregon Legislature failed to hammer out new dredging rules in wild salmon habitat.
Collom said he would not like to see a repeat of last summer, when armed "Oath Keepers" stood guard over mining equipment at a Galice-area mine co-owned by Barclay during a dispute with the federal Bureau of Land Management over its operations.
The Oath Keepers eventually dispersed after a standoff that never was, but the miners' dispute with the BLM remains unresolved.
"That would be our first choice, not to have those guys involved," Collom said. "Whatever it is, there needs to be a peaceful resolution."
Suction-dredge mining employs a floating vacuum to suck gravel from a stream bottom. Materials vacuumed by the dredge then go through a sluice to allow miners to strain out gold and other heavy metals, while sand, silt and other fine materials are discharged into the water.
Wild-salmon advocates say the process damages spawning grounds and rearing habitat. Miners have argued that current laws already protect salmon and their habitat, and they have argued that no peer-reviewed study on suction dredging proves it ruins salmon habitat.
Barclay is one of several miners who filed suit in federal court in October, seeking a judge to declare the state moratorium pre-empted by federal law. After a flurry of court filings, oral arguments were scheduled for Feb. 18 before U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark D. Clarke at U.S. District Court in Medford.
In 2013, the Legislature passed a law that severely restricted dredging by cutting and capping the number of dredging permits offered annually in Oregon, and limited some of the times, locations and manner for how dredgers operate. It was designed to protect wild salmon and their habitats and reduce conflicts with riverside landowners and users.
The law was written to sunset at the end of 2015 to give the Legislature time to grapple with permanent rules, which never materialized. The moratorium as written is to remain in effect until 2021.
As the moratorium loomed last fall, state Sen. Alan Bates, D-Medford, said he intended to introduce a bill in February that would create long-term dredging restrictions and lift the moratorium.
Bates said this week that he now does not plan to seek a lift to the moratorium and instead has drafted a new bill that would extend the dredging moratorium beyond wild salmon habitat to include wild bull trout and lamprey streams.
If the bill passes, state agencies likely would need about two years to draft the actual rules that he intends to regulate dredging in Oregon from 2022 and beyond once the moratorium elapses, Bates said.
"Right now, the best thing to do is leave the moratorium in place, write the regs and push it through," Bates told the Mail Tribune.
"We really have gems of rivers in our state," Bates said. "A lot of people want to close (dredging) down completely, but I'm not. This is going to be a huge step in the right direction."
Barclay said if Clarke rules in miners' favor in the federal suit, "then Bates is S.O.L."
"I don't care what Mr. Bates wants to do," Barclay said. "Miners are going to mine."
Before the moratorium, the dredging season in Oregon differed between rivers and followed the legal summer in-water work period to protect wild salmon eggs and young fry in the gravels.
Barclay said current dredgers are working claims on intermittent streams that don't flow during the summer period, and federal mining laws require they work their claims to keep them.
"That's why they feel they have a defense," Barclay said.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.