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Arrest, banning plan concerns Southern Oregon miners

GRANTS PASS — The arrest of a Gold Hillman on charges of illegal mining last month and a recent announcement by Gov. Ted Kulongoski that he would like a ban on suction dredges has many local miners on edge.

Several of them packed the Anne G. Basker Auditorium in Grants Pass on Wednesday to voice their concern that the federal government has overstepped its bounds in restricting miners from applying their trade on public lands.

A panel composed mostly of working miners painted a grim picture for those present, relaying stories of government interference in what they believe to be a right bestowed on them by an 1872 law which they argue opens all lands to mining, regardless of federal rules and regulations put in place to protect river health and endangered species.

"Mining is a right that was granted by the U.S. Congress in the mid-1800s," said Ron Gibson, vice president of the Southwest Oregon Mining Association.

The forum comes on the heels of the well-publicized arrest of Clifford R. Tracy, 37, of Gold Hill.

Tracy was arrested in September for mining without a permit in the area of Sucker Creek just outside Cave Junction.

He was released from jail Sept. 21 after agreeing not to continue working his 4.75-acre claim in the Sucker Creek drainage.

Adding to the miners' woes was the August ban of suction dredge mining in California. Gov. Kulongoski, fearing that Oregon's rivers would be hit hard by suction dredge miners from California, has issued a letter asking that a ban be placed on dredge mining around the Illinois and Rogue rivers.

Tom Kitchar, a veteran suction dredge miner, said the governor has overreacted.

"Suction dredge mining is probably the most ecologically sound method devised to extract minerals from the river," Kitchar said.

He believes there won't be an invasion of California dredge miners into southwest Oregon because all of the good spots have been taken.

The panelists described the paperwork nightmares they face any time they wish to file a mining claim on a river or stream. It's gotten so difficult and expensive, they say, that it's nearly impossible to make a consistent living mining.

"I fear for our industry," said panelist Walt Freeman. "I fear that we will become dependant of foreign powers for minerals."

Gibson believes Tracy was wrongly jailed for his actions and that the federal government has acted outside the law in charging him with illegal mining.

"What he did is not illegal," Gibson said. "To ascertain that he's doing anything unlawful has no standing in the law."

However, local environmental groups argue Tracy has chosen to ignore federal laws put in place to protect fish and promote healthy rivers and streams.

"It's apparent that some in the mining industry feel they are entitled to public resources and believe in following one law and one law only," said Lesley Adams, Rogue River keeper with the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center.

Adams toured Tracy's claim and described the immense damage done to the Sucker Creek drainage after he rolled heavy construction equipment into the area and dug two large settling ponds that have filled with stagnant water.

"What he did to Sucker Creek is a tragedy," Adams said. "It's a mess, an absolute mess."

Tracy is scheduled to appear in a Medford federal court next week.

Reach Chris Conrad at 776-4471 or cconrad@mailtribune.com.