A woman has posted a sign staking her
mining claim on federal land next
to the Middle Fork Applegate River in northern
California. | credit: Amelia
Templeton | rollover
image for more
The 9th Circuit Court of
Appeals ruled Friday that the Forest Service must strengthen
its regulation of suction dredge gold mining and other
small-scale mining operations in salmon streams throughout
the western United States.
In the past, smaller-scale
recreational miners have been given access to federal
forests to search for gold in stream gravels under a
streamlined notification process. That process was in
violation of the Endangered Species Act, the court ruled.
Gold mining with small,
vacuum-like dredges is popular in some parts of the rural
Northwest, including southern Oregon and Idaho.
The 7-to-4 appeals court
decision came in response to a suit filed by the Karuk Tribe
of Northern California. The tribe sued the Forest Service in
2004, after the agency approved a number of gold dredging
operations on a 35 mile stretch of the Klamath river.
Endangered Coho salmon that spawn in the Klamath are a
central part of the Karuk diet and culture; the tribe has
also fought for decades to remove dams on the upper reaches
of the river.
The circuit court ruling will
require the Forest Service to consult with fish and wildlife
agencies. the Karuk Tribe, which filed the lawsuit, hailed
the ruling for putting the authority of the Endangered
Species Act ahead of the 1872 Mining Act. For more than a
century, the law has prevailed over environmental laws, to
the ire of conservation groups and tribes. Craig Tucker, the
Karuk Tribe’s Klamath coordinator, hailed the ruling.
“You can’t just willy-nilly
approve this stuff, when there’s an ESA listed salmon at
stake. You actually have to ask fish experts, NOAA Fisheries
or U.S. Fish and Wildlife, if this activity would create
Tucker says the Karuk Tribe
will be given an opportunity to weigh in when that
consultation takes place.
“I do think it’s really going
to change the way mining works in the Pacific Northwest,
because of the salmon listings” he says.
The court decision applies to
mining on federal lands in a broad swath of western states
from Arizona to Alaska. In theory, the ruling could apply to
other endangered species found in streams.
However, the ruling should
not impact mining in streams and rivers without endangered
species, and it does not apply to traditional gold panning.
In a strongly worded and
illustrated dissent, Circuit Court Judge Milan D. Smith Jr
argued that the majority’s decision ignored precedent and
effectively shut down small scale suction dredge mining.
Smith noted that federal fish
and wildlife agencies often face a backlog of ESA
consultation requests, and that the approval process could
take months or years.
“Most miners affected by this
decision will have neither the resources nor the patience to
pursue a consultation with the EPA; they will simply give
up, and curse the Ninth Circuit.”
The Forest Service has
several months to decide whether to petition the Supreme
Court to hear an appeal of the case.
Read the full 9th Circuit
Court of Appeals decision below.