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October 5, 2007. 4 comments. Topic: Water California Progress Report by Dan Bacher

Fish Groups and Indian Tribes Urge Governor Schwarzenegger to Sign Bill to Empower California Department of Fish and Game on Dredge Gold Mining

A coalition of Indian Tribes, recreational fishing groups and conservationists is urging Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to sign AB 1032, a bill that would empower the California Department of Fish and Game to regulate suction dredge gold mining in California rivers.

The bill, introduced by Assemblymember Lois Wolk in February, passed through the Assembly and Senate and was sent to Governor Schwarzenegger on September 12. The Governor can sign the bill, veto it or let it sit for on his desk for 30days, at which time it becomes law.

While suction dredge mining is heavily regulated in other states including Oregon, California suffers from surprisingly slack regulations. Harm to sensitive salmon and trout habitat is caused by the environmentally destructive motorized suction dredge mining that stirs up sediment and sends turbidity plumes down sections of river. The bill would:

• Ban motorized suction gold dredge mining on five of the 68 designated Wild and Heritage Trout streams that DFG has not already banned via regulation.

• Seasonally restrict motorized suction gold dredge mining on segments of the Klamath, Salmon, and Scott rivers, and ban such activities on certain tributaries of these streams that DFG has identified as important salmon spawning grounds.

• State that restrictions will apply for three years or until such time as DFG completes a court ordered environmental review and update of its existing suction dredge regulations, whichever occurs first.

• Increase the existing fees for suction dredge permits.

•Authorize the DFG to allocate existing funds in the Salmon and Steelhead Trout Restoration Account for the purpose of conducting a court-ordered environmental review of its existing suction dredge permitting program and to promulgate regulations to protect coho salmon and other listed species.

The legislation will protect the Middle Fork of the Feather River from Oroville Reservoir upstream to the Sloat Vehicle Bridge; Lavezola Creek in Sierra County; Nelson Creek, upstream from the confluence with the Middle Fork of the Feather River; the North Fork of the American River from Iowa Hill Bridge to the confluence with Lake Clementine; and the Rubicon River from the confluence with the Middle Fork of the American River upstream to Hell Hole Dam.

Bill proponents contend that an increase in suction dredge gold mining by groups of prospectors including the New 49’ers Club has resulted in increasing harm to salmon, steelhead and wild trout populations now in decline because of years of habitat destruction. The increasingly intense mining practices spurred the Karuk Tribe on the Klamath River in 2005 to sue the DFG over the adequacy of its regulations.

“Scientific, peer-reviewed research studies conclusively show that suction dredging for gold can adversely affect or harm both the reproduction of spawning fish and rearing habitat for juvenile fish, particularly trout and salmon,” according to California Trout. These findings were reaffirmed in the Karuk lawsuit by DFG and by eminent expert fishery biologists like Dr. Peter Moyle of UC Davis and Dr. Walt Duffy of Humboldt State University.

According to Moyle, "suction dredging should be banned in tributaries of the Klamath River, 500 meters above and below cool-water refuge areas (stream mouths) on the mainstream of the Klamath River, the Klamath River from the Trinity River confluence to Green Riffle, Canyon Creek and all other Scott River tributaries, and the Salmon River including the north and south forks and all tributaries."

Dr. Moyle contends that “Suction dredging represents a chronic unnatural disturbance of natural habitats that are already likely to be stressed by other factors and can therefore have a negative impact on fishes that use the reach being dredged. All anadromous fishes in the Klamath basin should be considered to be in decline and ultimately threatened with extirpation. Section dredging through a combination of disturbance of resident fish, alteration of substrates, and indirect effects on heavy human use of small areas, especially thermal refugia (side creeks), will further contribute to the decline of the fishes."

The DFG last updated its mining regulations in 1994. After the Karuk Tribe sued DFG over the adequacy of the regulations, the DFG essentially did not contest the lawsuit. In a negotiated settlement, DFG agreed to conduct an environmental assessment of its regulations by July, 2008, provided that funds for this review were provided in the 2007-08 budget.

An impressive coalition of 22 Indian Tribes, California Trout and other fishery restoration organizations then collaborated on writing the legislation.

Opponents claim that state environmental restrictions on suction dredge gold mining deny miners' private property rights to dredge for gold, pointing to the 1872 federal mining law as authority.

“Giving DFG the authority to close waters without following the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and eliminating public participation would eliminate due process for the citizens of our state and cause financial hardships for our business and hundreds of others within California and neighboring states,” stated Scott Harn, President of California Mining Journal in his letter to Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“Negatively impacted businesses include mining publications, mining equipment manufacturers and retailers, assayers, prospecting clubs, resorts, hotels, motels, private campgrounds and many more. As you are aware, the Mining Law of 1872 makes it clear that mining is a right subject to reasonable regulation – not prohibition,” Harn said.

However, Craig Tucker, spokesman for the Karuk Tribe, points out that miners do not have an “unfettered right” under the General Mining Act to engage in activities that are harmful to protected native species, in derogation of state and federal environmental laws. Moreover, the State of California acquired sovereign ownership of the beds of navigable rivers upon its admission to the United States in 1850.

“The State holds these lands for the benefit of all the people of California for statewide Public Trust purposes, including fisheries and habitat preservation. No one has an unalterable right to suck up streambeds in search of gold if such activities cause harm to public trust resources,” said Tucker.

Bill Carnarzzo, a fishing guide on the Middle and North Forks of the American River and board member of the Upper American River Foundation, has for the past 30 years observed the devastation that has been caused to the fisheries in these beautiful rivers by “unethical suction dredge miners who scoff at laws and regulations.”

“Most recreational miners are good people who cause little or no damage,” said Carnazzo. “As usual, it’s the few ‘bad’ ones that are the source of the problem and who generate the need for strict regulation. But in this case, there appears to be no other way than to give DFG the necessary remedial authority.”

One of the reasons for the lack of adequate dredge mining operations in California is the mystique that mining has held in California history. “Mining is regarded as American as motherhood and apple pie, something sacred that goes back to the 1872 mining law,” Carnazzo stated.

Supporters of the legislation include the American Fisheries Society, California Indian Environmental Alliance, Cal Trout, California Outdoor Heritage Alliance, Clean Water Action, Environmental Justice Coalition for Water, Friends of the River, Hoopa Valley Tribal Council, Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, Karuk Tribe, Klamath River Inter-Tribal Fish and Water Commission, Ione Band of Miwok Indians, Potter Valley Tribe, Quartz Valley Indian Reservation, Redding Rancheria, Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians, Sycuan Band of Kumeyaay Nation, Upper American River Foundation and the Yurok Tribe.

Opponents of the legislation include the Comstock Metal Detectors, County of Siskiyou, New 49’ers, Pioneer Mining Supplies, Public Lands of the People Inc., Regional Council of Rural Counties, Treasure Seekers of San Diego and Washington Prospectors Association.

For more information, contact California Trout, http://www.caltrout.org, and the Karuk Tribe, www.karuk.us.

Dan Bacher is an editor of The Fish Sniffer , described as "The #1 Newspaper in the World Dedicated Entirely to Fishermen"

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