The governor sent letters Thursday to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar asking them to impose what is known as a mineral withdrawal on federal lands surrounding the Kalmiopsis, Wild Rogue and Copper Salmon wilderness areas on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.
Conservation groups hope to meld the three wilderness areas and surrounding parts of southwestern Oregon into one big wilderness covering 1 million acres—a move Kulongoski has endorsed. Mining is already restricted on the wilderness areas, but the mineral withdrawal would stop new claims in the areas surrounding them. The region includes portions of the Rogue, Illinois and Elk rivers.
The Siskiyou and Klamath mountains of southwestern Oregon were the site of Oregon's gold rush in the 1850s, and Kulongoski noted that the region has some of the best remaining salmon and steelhead habitat on the West Coast.
"With climate change increasing the pressures on plant and animal species, this area is a critical lifeboat providing intact habitat over a range of elevations from north to south," Kulongoski wrote. "We are very concerned that the suction dredge miners are now heading for Oregon."
The governor's policy director, Mike Carrier, said conservation groups had been urging the governor to call for the mining ban, and he decided to act now because of the potential for increased mining in the area causing harm before a formal wilderness designation is considered by Congress.
The area is just over the hill from Happy Camp, Calif., where mining on claims along the Klamath River owned by the New 49ers Prospecting Club was practically shut down in August. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation imposing a statewide moratorium until an environmental review determines how much harm the practice is doing to struggling salmon runs.
Joel King, Wild Rivers district ranger on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, said he had noticed an increase in recreational gold mining that he attributed to rising gold prices and the California dredge moratorium.
Gold prices reached a record of $1,072 an ounce Wednesday.
"Just about anybody who was mining in Northern California has been looking at Oregon for the next season because it's being litigated in California right now and we don't know how that litigation will come out," said Mike Higbee, a Grants Pass gold miner and member of the New 49ers.
"If we are unable to overturn it before next season, it would only be a natural fact that California miners are going to be looking at Oregon—and Washington and Idaho."
Montine Blevins of the New 49ers said club president Dave McCracken has scouted out public-access mining locations in Oregon and shared the locations with club members, but he has not made any new claims.
Higbee said he brought his own dredge over from Happy Camp to state-controlled land on the Rogue River. There were 10 other miners from California working the river, he added.
"There are 3,000 licensed suction dredgers (in California) that they have never proved killed a fish," Higbee said. "They also have 3.2 million licensed fishermen, and their goal is to kill fish."
Gloria Forest of Sutherlin, treasurer of the Douglas County Prospectors Association, said they regularly pull more lead fishing weights and other garbage out of rivers than gold.
Representatives from the departments of Interior and Agriculture said they had received the Kulongoski's letter and were reviewing it.