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Dave Britton pulls his gas-powered dredger while prospecting in California. A dredger, which works like a vacuum cleaner, sucks up riverbed material and sorts out the gold.
By Drew Fleming for USA TODAY
Dave Britton pulls his gas-powered dredger while prospecting in California. A dredger, which works like a vacuum cleaner, sucks up riverbed material and sorts out the gold.
 GOLD PRICES RISING
The price of an ounce of gold each year on Sept. 7 (or closest trading day) since 2001:

2001: $274
2007: $701

Source: Kitco Inc.

By Julie Snider, USA TODAY

Gold-mining club member Doug Robinson navigates the Klamath River last month in Northern California. Miners say their dredging techniques actually help spawning fish.
 Enlarge By Drew Fleming for USA TODAY
Gold-mining club member Doug Robinson navigates the Klamath River last month in Northern California. Miners say their dredging techniques actually help spawning fish.
HAPPY CAMP, Calif. Clad in a wet suit, Tim Sullivan stands up to his knees in a remote stretch of the Klamath River, ready to move his dredging machine to a better spot in search of gold.

Sullivan, a construction worker from Pueblo, Colo., spends parts of summers here underwater, punching holes in the river bed, sucking up dirt and gravel and running them through a sluice box looking for tiny particles of treasure.

He belongs to the New 49ers club, an updated and much smaller-scale version of the gold rush enthusiasts who swept into California more than 150 years ago. These mostly recreational miners also are stirring up controversy just as their forebears did: Environmentalists and Indians say miners are wrecking spawning beds of endangered salmon and other fish.

A bill in the state Assembly would authorize wildlife managers to ban the gold-mining techniques they employ in sensitive rivers and streams. Miners say their suction dredge techniques do more good than harm to spawning habitat and consider the bill a politically motivated attempt to banish them from the state's rivers.

"Dredging has very little impact on the environment," says Sullivan, 45. "I wouldn't do it if it did. I quit fishing once I started dredging. Being down there with the fish, I had no desire to harass or harm them."

Hefty price of gold

New 49ers lease 70 miles of mining claims along the Klamath, Salmon and Scott rivers and their tributaries and have about 1,200 members worldwide. Some come each year with their dredging machines, camp along the river, work and socialize with fellow miners, maybe take home an ounce or two of gold if they're lucky.

At current gold prices, around $701 an ounce, that pays some expenses, but few of them make a living mining. Other clubs operate in California and the West. The 49ers have been fighting lawsuits brought by Karuk Indians, whose traditional lands and culture, like other Pacific Northwest tribes, revolved around salmon.

With Klamath salmon dwindling because of four dams up river and water allocations for farm and ranch irrigation, mining is just one more threat to fragile species, Karuk vice chairman Leaf Hillman says.

"I call it recreational genocide, because that's exactly what it is," Hillman says. "This isn't an industry on the Klamath. People don't rely on mining to put food on their table. The only ones getting rich are the people who have these clubs."

Changes in tribal diets over the past 20 years as salmon declined led to high rates of diabetes and heart disease and lower life expectancies, Hillman says. "We're not trying to get all the miners off the river. Our goal is to protect the fishery."

It costs $2,500 to join the New 49ers and get access to the club's river claims, except when they're off limits because fish are spawning. The club sponsors field trips to teach newcomers how to dredge.

"They can come as often as they want, mine all the gold they can," 49ers founder Dave McCracken says. "Most of our members are retired or just come out for summer activity. There's a percentage that's families on vacation. The more serious younger crowd tries to make a living at it."

Environmental arguments against suction dredging aren't new, and miners claim no studies show damaging effects from their operations. They say dredges stir up riverbeds, expose food for fish and create softer gravel surfaces to deposit eggs on. Dredge holes hold cool water that fish rest in when the river is warm, miners say.

"When a suction dredge comes in, it basically on a very small scale does what mother Earth does on a very large scale" during spring snow melt or flooding, says Mike Higbee, a veteran miner who owns a mining equipment store in Grants Pass, Ore. "There are a lot of user groups fishermen, rafters, kayakers that actually walk into these beds of eggs, and they aren't regulated."

Inconclusive research

The limited research about suction dredging is inconclusive, says Peter Moyle, a fisheries professor at the University of California-Davis. "Everything depends on when and where you do it," he says. "If you do it after the fish have spawned, early in the spring when eggs are still in the gravel, it can be very harmful. If you do it later in the season it may not be."

The Klamath's spring Chinook salmon "already are on the knife's edge of survival," Moyle says, and dredges can turn a riverbed upside down, making spawning harder.

"Dredgers are trying to put the burden of proof on tribes and biologists," Moyle says. "And it really should be the other way around."

California Trout, a group trying to save the state's few streams with wild, native trout, says dredging rules haven't been updated since 1993 to reflect fish species that have been listed as endangered and threatened since then.

A Karuk lawsuit led to a settlement requiring California's Fish and Game Department to do a fresh environmental study. An amendment in the Assembly would allow the state to raise dredging fees to pay for it.

"We're not saying mining is always harmful," says Jeff Shellito, California Trout's government affairs manager. "We want to give the state additional tools to protect wild trout."

Last year, 3,011 miners, 460 from outside California, bought dredging permits. Across the state, sections of 68 streams and rivers still support wild trout, Shellito says.

The economy of this region near the Oregon border has been less than robust since the timber industry died in the 1990s. Gone is a lumber mill in Happy Camp that employed 600. Businesses along Highway 96, winding next to the Klamath for more than 100 miles, appreciate the miners.

"Miners are a big part of my business," says Rick Jones, owner of Seiad Valley Store. "If they get eliminated from the river, it puts a further hardship on everybody."

Bruce Johnson, owner of an RV park next door filled with miners, says environmental groups and Karuks "want to drive business out. They want a zoo they can drive through."

 
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