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Convicted miner proposes new operation

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has completed an environmental assessment of a gold miner's proposed plan to placer mine along Sucker Creek in the Illinois Valley, the same drainage where he was convicted of illegal mining on national forestland last year.

Completion of the 75-page document containing three alternatives opens a 30-day period for the public to comment on the plan of operations by Clifford R. Tracy, 38, to mine along the stream a dozen miles southeast of Cave Junction.

The site is about two miles downstream from the area on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest where he was arrested for illegal mining.

"Under our laws and regulations, we can't consider the issues he might have had with the Forest Service," said Jim Whittington, spokesman for the BLM's Medford District. "As long as he is in compliance on BLM land, we proceed as normal. And he's done everything he is supposed to do at this point."

The BLM's decision will be guided by the General Mining Law of 1872, along with the National Environmental Policy Act and other laws, officials said.

"He has a right under the 1872 law to file an operations plan," Whittington said. "It makes it tough for us sometimes. It doesn't give us a lot of decision space."

Based on Tracy's track record and the mining operation's potential threat to the wild coho salmon fishery, Tracy shouldn't be allowed to proceed, said George Sexton, conservation director of the Ashland-based Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center.

"The Illinois River is perhaps the biggest wild coho producer in the Rogue basin, and Sucker Creek produces more than 30 percent of that," he said. "Sucker Creek is the linchpin of wild coho recovery and production in the basin.

"If we lose the Sucker Creek population, we're in big trouble."

The proposed mining operation is in a riparian reserve which was designated as a key watershed for coho salmon recovery in the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, he said, adding it also was declared critical coho habitat by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"If this goes through, the BLM will be giving him free rein to harm water quality," Sexton said, noting that BLM e-mails and memos he received from a Freedom of Information Act request reveal that two of Tracy's mining operations on BLM land in the area were riddled with environmental problems.

Tracy, who filed for bankruptcy last fall, was found guilty of one count of conducting mining operations in the forest without an approved operating plan. In addition to serving 12 days in jail for refusing to agree to stop his mining operation, he was placed on one year's probation.

"He is using the same mining mechanism, the same kind of mining operation on BLM land," Sexton said. "He plans to clear-cut swaths along the stream and build settling ponds. Even if the settling ponds don't blow out like they have before, the turbidity from subsurface seepage is a concern."

However, in his proposed plan of operation submitted to the BLM, Tracy said he would work to ensure the mining operation did not pollute the stream with sediment.

"If contamination occurs and or spills they will be dealt with immediately by blocking seepage and or removing spills from location and contacting the appropriate authorities," he wrote of the settlement ponds, later adding that reclamation of the area mined will be done in steps as work is completed."

Basically, the project would entail mining on 3 to 4 acres on a bench adjacent to the stream, removing the vegetation from the area he would mine, Whittington said.

The BLM has listed three alternatives in the EA, including a "no action" option.

"It's a high bar to meet," Whittington said of the BLM's legal rationale for refusing to allow the project. "If we went with 'no action,' Tracy would be able to appeal and probably be able to sue."

The second alternative would give Tracy the go-ahead to mine based on his plan of operation, Whittington said.

The third alternative would require additional mitigation to further protect the stream and surrounding area, including increasing a buffer of trees between the mining area and the creek.

To read the entire document, go to www.blm.gov/or/districts/medford/plans/files/tracysuckerea.pdf.

Comments should be mailed to Abbie Jossie, BLM, Grants Pass Resource Area, 2164 N.E. Spalding, Grants Pass, OR 97526, or by e-mail to Medford_Mail@blm.gov.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail pfattig@mailtribune.com.