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Ban on suction dredging remains intact

The U.S. Supreme Court has closed the book on a years-long battle to overturn a ban on suction dredge mining in Oregon’s salmon-bearing streams.

The court declined to hear a petition on Oregon’s 2017 ban on using dredging machinery in streams that are critical coho salmon breeding grounds. The dredges suck up gravel from streambeds so miners can sift for precious metals.

Miners argued that a federal law dating back to the mid-1800s renders Oregon’s moratorium illegal.

“The mining law clearly states that all valuable mineral deposits on lands of the United States open to the mining law shall be free and open to exploration,” said Tom Kitchar, president of the Waldo Mining District in Cave Junction.

Nick Cady, legal director with the environmental group Cascadia Wildlands, said suction dredges destroy critical breeding grounds for coho salmon.

“It’s ridiculous, from our point of view, that a recreational mining activity should be allowed or permitted in areas where we’ve spent millions and millions of dollars restoring salmon habitat,” Cady said.

Kitchar said the ban went further than suction dredging.

“It’s a ban on all motorized equipment,” he said. “And the state has defined motorized equipment as anything not human-powered.”

Cady participated in study groups during the legislative process. He says the law is much narrower than that.

“If you’re using a small piece of equipment, it’s not going to fall under the purview of the law,” Cady said. “But if you’re using a motor and you have over a 4-inch nozzle, then the restrictions will apply.”

The petition was essentially the miners’ last chance to challenge the state’s moratorium in court.

Suction dredge mining was permanently banned from Western Oregon’s wild salmon habitat under a bill that passed the Legislature in June 2017.

The bill was carried on the House floor by Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland. Arguments against the bill were offered on the floor by Rep. Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass.

Former Sen. Alan DeBoer, R-Ashland, voted in favor, and Sen. Herman Baertschiger, R-Grants Pass, opposed.

The bill made permanent a temporary ban established in 2016 on suction dredging within wild salmon and steelhead spawning habitat in creeks and rivers deemed “essential salmon habitat.” The moratorium effectively banned suction dredges in the Illinois River, the Rogue River and its tributaries below Lost Creek Lake, and the Applegate River and its tributaries below Applegate Lake.

The bill also banned dredging in habitat of Pacific lamprey, which are also present in the Rogue Basin.

Passage of the law in 2017 was widely seen as a posthumous tip of the cap to former state Sen. Alan Bates, D-Ashland, a fly-fishing Medford physician who championed the effort to ban dredges for years but died from an apparent heart attack in 2016, a year before the law passed the Legislature. Bates died of an apparent heart attack during a fishing trip at age 71.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld Oregon’s ban on suction-dredge mining in the Rogue River and other wild salmon streams in September 2018, rejecting miners’ arguments that federal mining laws trump state law on public land.

Mail Tribune staff contributed to this story.