Activities encouraged by the 1872 Mining Act have dramatically changed the terrestrial and aquatic landscapes of the Klamath‐Siskiyou Ecoregion. From active mines that threaten water quality and native fish, to a flurry of new claims that further threaten designated Wilderness areas, Wild and Scenic Rivers and struggling salmon‐bearing streams, to abandoned mines on public lands that leach toxic pollutants into fish‐bearing streams and groundwater, mining’s toxic legacy and current impacts in the region are significant. With gold prices continuing to reach all‐time highs, a suction dredge mining moratorium in California, and rare metals like nickel laterite in increasing demand, there is an alarming resurgence of mining in the geologically unique Klamath‐Siskiyou region of Southern Oregon and Northern California. For example, in 2007, there were 656 miners registered with the state for suction dredge mining in our rivers. In 2010, there were nearly 1,100. As more and more suction dredgers vacuum up streambeds in search for gold, enforcement of already weak state and federal regulations is inadequate to protect the valuable resources that rivers, salmon and public lands provide.
Mining and salmon don’t mix. Devastating 19th century hydraulic mining contributed to the rapid decline of southern Oregon and Northern California fisheries. Today, in‐stream and streamside mining contribute to turbidity, erosion, increases in water temperature that are lethal to fish, and mercury pollution. Unfortunately, many public lands miners also feel that the antiquated language of the 1872 Mining Act places their activities above virtually all other laws. They post ‘private, no trespassing’ signs on public land, use violence and threats of violence to intimidate other public lands users, refuse to abide by even minimal environmental regulations, and have regularly been found engaging in illegal mining activities.
Crag has been helping rural communities take action to prevent destructive mining practices on Oregon’s wild rivers in the Klamath-Siskiyou Ecoregion and on the Oregon Coast. We are working on an enforcement action under the Clean Water Act against an illegal mine on Sucker Creek, which is an important coldwater tributary and habitat for coho salmon in the Illinois River drainage. We are working to protect salmon in the South Fork Salmon River Watershed and the McNeal Creek in northern California. We are working with citizens and farmers in the Willamette River valley to challenge gravel mining that threatens to damage a land base that supports a thriving community of family and organic farms.
Last week, Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio toured an abandoned copper mine in southwestern Oregon that is on the Superfund list of major pollution sites as he prepares to file legislation to overhaul the nation’s primary mining law. There have been many attempts to reform the law so far and it will be a challenge in today’s political climate to do so. However, the arguments in support are overwhelming, as the antiquated mining law is having huge costs in terms of harm to the environment and clean-up responsibilities that are borne by the taxpayers not the mining companies. We wish Congressman DeFazio all the best as he works to pass meaningful reform. There is only so much that state agencies, the federal government and conservation groups can do to hold the line under the existing laws.