Gold Vs. Salmon
(Nat sound) In the rugged mountain wilderness of Washington
state, a unique group of enthusiasts is carrying on an age-old tradition.
We�re probably going to put the dredge right here.
Right in that area, ok. They�re searching for gold.
Gold has always had an allure for man and man has always chased it.
For modern small scale miners like Ron Larson, the most effective tool is a fairly new invention
known as the hydraulic dredge. Locked and loaded.
A hydraulic dredge is essentially a floating platform with a power plant that supplies
air and power to move water over a riffle box, to sort out the heavy material. Gold
is heavier than any other mineral in the stream and the only way to get the gold is to remove
what is called overburden. To strip away this layer of rock and sediment,
miners are equipped with diving gear � and a high-powered underwater vacuum.
Also known as suction dredging, this method allows miners to go through as much as forty
times more sediment than non-motorized mining. But growing concern over possible environmental
impacts, has caused lawmakers in California, Oregon
and Idaho to take action to restrict it. That leaves Washington as one of just a few
Western states to allow dredging in most of its waterways, setting up a key battle between
small scale gold miners � There�s a dredge right over here.
Oh Yeah. – and the activists looking to shut them down.
Let�s go. In Central Washington, a team of fish enthusiasts
and environmental activists is heading into prime dredging territory.
They�re looking for evidence of how this mining method impacts fish.
Wow Are you kidding?
We�re here and we�re fishermen and we�re concerned.
They�ve altered the channel of the water so they can bring it into their sluice.
Bafundo is the Washington Field Coordinator for Trout Unlimited.
We�ve been seeing waters getting warmer, we�ve been seeing droughts across the west
that have been impacting fish. And right now we have steelhead that are trying to get up
the stream to spawn and they can�t. Farther upstream, Bafundo and restoration
ecologist Crystal Elliott-Perez check for impacts to water quality just below a dredging
operation. When you run sediment through a sluice and
you get a sediment plume coming out the back end, that impacts turbidity or increases turbidity.
Excess sediment makes it difficult for fish to breathe and can cause water temperatures
to rise to harmful levels. Remember what it was back there?
2.7? Yup. It�s 10.2.
Are you kidding? Four times higher than farther downstream.
Not enough to kill fish, but they are more concerned about the overall impacts dredging
could be having � impacts that currently aren�t being measured.
Washington was among the first states to publish rules for small scale mining in 1980.
Current regulations don�t allow dredging during spawning seasons, and place restrictions
on where in the stream miners can operate, how large their motors and hoses can be, and
how close together they can dredge. But permits, which are free, are required
only for projects that don�t fall within these rules.
This means that the state isn�t tracking where or when dredging is taking place.
That�s a problem for Mark Johnson, a fish biologist with the Yakima Nation. He says
suction dredging can have a negative impact on fish spawning habitat.
When you get up in the isolated areas, people tend not to follow those rules.
They will get into areas that are smaller, coarse gravel and that�s typically where
fish like to spawn. They dig their nests or their reds in the ground, lay their eggs and
then they die. The nutrients from these dead fish build the
food web for the next generation. But changing mining laws means grappling with
a deep history that began even before Washington was a state
Thank you all Al, you guys have participated Yay!
The Pacific Northwest Miner�s Rally is held every year near the historic ghost town of
Liberty, site of the state�s first and only gold rush in 1873.
Miners are adamant about preserving this history. They�re also protected by it – through the
Federal Mining Act of 1872. The miner who claims the land has a possessory
right to that land. He actually owns the minerals. This is literally an Act of Congress that
has given us this right to be here and do this.
Do you wanna do it again next year? You bet!
Thank you very much everybody. Miners say that current regulations are restrictive
enough. If you are caught out here you will get fined
and some of them are pretty stiff fines, up to $5000 if you�re not following the provisions.
They contend their activities clear the streams of trash and debris, and have little to no
impact on fish. A great many of the prospectors that I know
are also fishermen and none of us go up here looking to kill fish.
Angler and activist Kim McDonald says it�s time for tighter controls and more oversight.
We�ll be able to see if there�s any impacts from monitoring these guys, from having better
enforcement, we�ll be able to see those impacts fairly quickly. To me this is easy,
this is something we should be doing! Caught in the middle is the state�s Department
of Fish and Wildlife. They�re responsible for enforcing mining rules.
We receive a lot of pressure from both ends of the spectrum on mineral prospecting.
Deputy Director Jeff Davis says that small scale mining is on the rise. But more rules
aren�t necessarily the answer. Part of the ecosystem are humans and their
way of life on the land, and that has to be part of how our agency achieves our mission.
I don�t think you can regulate your way to long term healthy fish and wildlife resources
in every circumstance. McDonald believes the increase in mining in
already threatened fish habitat underscores the need for change.
If you take out a map of Washington state, every stream and river has anadromous fish.
And almost every single one is dealing with fish that are going extinct. And we�ve spent
since the late 1990s talking about what we should do about it. This is something we can
do. Back on the river, miner Ron Larson and his
partner are shutting down for the day. Let�s see if we�re getting any gold. Ooh
yes, I believe it is. Wow!
Maybe a forty or fifty dollar nugget. It doesn�t pay for the gas to get here,
but Larson insists it�s worth it. Gold fever is a very very real thing. It�s,
it�s an adrenaline thing, and it always keeps you coming back.
As long as there�s gold in these rivers, Larson says, he�ll keep fighting for his
right to search for it.