By Drew Fleming for USA TODAY
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,
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."
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
"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
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,
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 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
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