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Defiant Abe Lincoln-quoting gold miner fails to sway jury

A federal court jury found gold miner Clifford R. Tracy guilty Friday afternoon of illegal mining following an often-feisty, two-day trial in Medford.

However, Tracy, who acted as his own attorney, calling himself to the witness stand and loosely quoting Abraham Lincoln's iconic Gettysburg address as part of his defense, was found innocent of discharging a pollutant into a stream, the second count he faced.

The charges stemmed from a June mining operation involving the Stray Dog placer claim on Galice Creek in the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Medford District. The creek flows into the Rogue River about 20 miles west of Grants Pass.

Sentencing on the misdemeanor conviction is set for Feb. 6 in federal court in Medford, with U.S. District Court Judge Owen Panner presiding.

The finding by the jury of seven women and five men came a few hours after Tracy and assistant U.S. Attorney Douglas Fong dueled verbally Friday morning.

In essence, Fong told the jury, the miner raised his middle finger to the government and the public by ignoring laws intended to protect the stream, which provides critical habitat for endangered coho salmon.

Moreover, Tracy did not stop mining when BLM law enforcement officers told him to stop his operation on June 17, after officials discovered a sediment plume in the stream, Fong said.

"What does he say? Middle finger — that was his response," the prosecutor said. "He said, 'No, I'm going to do what I damn well please.'

"It is your land, the public's land," Fong told the jury. "The defendant would have you think it is his land. It is public land."

Nor did Fong accept Tracy's argument that the BLM is against mining.

"He wants to have you believe the government hates miners," Fong said, adding that the BLM is charged with being stewards of the public land for all users. The agency is screamed at by environmentalists and miners alike, he noted.

Earlier in the trial, Fong displayed photographs of Tracy's mining operation which showed a cloudy plume in the stream and a muddy settling pond, along with Tracy operating a large excavator and a dump truck. The prosecutor also called BLM geologists and a fisheries biologist to the stand to testify against Tracy.

Fong observed Friday that the placer mining claim was not Tracy's, and that Tracy was simply operating it.

"Yet he has the audacity to say, 'This is my property right,' " Fong said.

"What is happening here is the defendant is trying to change the rules on the government," he added. "The government told him over and over again (that he was breaking the law). He would not listen. The only voice he hears is his own."

Tracy took the witness stand in his own defense, but only after Panner, just as he had done Thursday, told the miner to take a straw out of his mouth.

"There is a prohibition on mining," Tracy told the courtroom. "If you couldn't have a beer for two years, you would consider that a prohibition."

At times asking himself questions which he then answered, Tracy said bureaucracy was effectively stopping legal mining.

"Anymore, it's just a paper game," he said, referring to himself in the third person. "Tracy was fed up — Tracy would rather be dead than play this game," he said.

If his property rights are taken away as a miner, then no property rights are safe, he warned, adding that he had agreed to the BLM's requests until officials began raising the requirements each time he met with them.

"I'm a good citizen," he said.

With that, he recited Lincoln's Gettysburg address of 1865. But after he completed the final lines, "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth," he changed the words.

"Not by the environmentalists, for the environmentalists," he said. And "not by the agencies, for the agencies."

Earlier that morning, after Tracy called John Nolan, a retired U.S. Forest Service mining administrator, to the witness stand in an effort to establish he had worked within the law in the past, Judge Panner disallowed the testimony.

"The fact you did mine properly before does not have any bearing on this case," Panner told Tracy.

In testifying for the defense, Barbara Wolf Miner, whose late husband, Ray Wolf, was a gold miner, said her husband had tried for more than a decade to obtain a plan of operation for a mining claim from the BLM in the Illinois Valley.

"In 2007, right before he passed away, the BLM issued a plan of operation for the claim," she said.

Repeatedly citing the 1872 Mining Act, Tracy said the BLM has a history of blocking legal mining with paperwork.

"The real question is: Do I have a right to mine?" he said. "Yes, I do."

Panner later told Tracy that regulations were the law of the land, no matter what the miner thought of them.

"Most everybody dealing with government has problems," he said. "The regulations are the law and they must be followed."

In 2009, Tracy was convicted of illegal mining on Sucker Creek in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. He was placed on 12 months probation for his illegal mining and received a small fine.

"The last time he did this, the taxpayers got stuck with over $20,000 in cleanup and remediation at the site," said George Sexton, conservation director for the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center in Ashland, after the trial.

"I hope after his illegal actions this time that the taxpayers don't get stuck with paying his tab again," he said.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.