A federal appeals court ruling Friday makes it tougher for small-time gold miners to work their claims on federal lands across the West.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled in a split decision that the U.S. Forest Service has to consult biologists from other agencies before allowing miners to do anything that might harm salmon protected by the Endangered Species Act. The ruling overturned a District Court decision.
The case was brought by the Karuk Tribe in Northern California as part of a longstanding battle to protect struggling salmon from mining on the Klamath River. The tribe traditionally depended upon the salmon for food.
'The Forest Service's decision to place the search for minuscule flakes of gold above the needs of people who rely on clean water, and especially wild salmon, was unconscionable," Leaf Hillman, director of natural resources for the Karuk Tribe, said in a statement.
A mining group said the ruling makes it virtually impossible for people to use suction dredges on rivers through federal lands with protected species. The dredges are gasoline-powered vacuums that suck the gravel from river bottoms and concentrate the gold.
North Bend Gold Prospectors President Bob Baldwin had not read the decision Monday morning, but said it would undoubtedly negatively affect members of his club. He worries biologists will be unavailable to review applications in a timely fashion, causing prospectors to miss the dredging seasons.
'That is going to stop everything," Baldwin said. 'It looks like the future... is not very bright."
Federal and state regulations on gold prospecting have become more restrictive over the years, he said. And with each new regulation comes more confusion, and often a new required permit.
The prospectors own the mineral rights to six claims in Oregon, where club members have historically been able to practice mining without fear of sanctions. Baldwin fears a day when even those claims won't be available.
'If a miner is causing a problem, they need to be cited and let the justice system figure out what the problem is," Baldwin said. 'They shouldn't just make a bunch of rules and hope (gold prospectors) don't try" to mine.
Jerry Hobbs, president of Public Lands for the People in San Bernardino, Calif., said most miners will not be able to afford the high cost of environmental reviews required to get approval. He predicted about 100 miners would go ahead and use their dredges illegally, because state and federal authorities are not likely to enforce any ban.
The ruling comes on top of a moratorium issued by the California Legislature against using suction dredges to mine for gold.
Reporter Jessie Higgins contributed to this article. She can be reached at 541-269-1222, ext. 240, or firstname.lastname@example.org.