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Where Dams Once Stood, Prospectors Spur Anger

By FELICITY BARRINGER

Published: September 3, 2010

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CloseLinkedinDiggMixxMySpaceYahoo! BuzzPermalink GOLD HILL, Ore. — When four dams on the Rogue River here were scheduled for removal, environmentalists predicted many benefits: more salmon and steelhead swimming upriver to spawn; more gravel carried downriver to replenish the riverbed; more rafters bobbing along 57 miles of newly opened water.

Leah Nash for The New York Times

With the removal of the Gold Ray Dam on the Rogue River in Oregon, salmon and steelhead will have better access to 333 miles of spawning habitat upstream.

Leah Nash for The New York Times

Bob Hunter, a staff lawyer for WaterWatch.

What they did not bargain for was the arrival this summer of a clutch of people, eager to sift through the tons of gravel for flakes of gold once hidden behind the dams.

Prospectors cluster slightly downriver from where the dams used to be. Their suction dredges blare together, in a discordant fanfare louder than lawnmowers.

Resentment now flows as freely as the river. Environmentalists and some riverside homeowners see the gold dredgers as noisy invaders rearranging the riverbed without care for the insects, fish and people who live in and along the Rogue. A state senator, Jason Atkinson, has announced that he will introduce legislation to ban the practice of dredging for gold; three state newspapers have editorialized in support of a temporary ban pending further study.

“This is interfering with the ambience, the sense of what the Rogue is about,” said Bob Hunter, a lawyer with WaterWatch, a nonprofit environmental group. He spent 23 years organizing, cajoling and filing lawsuits to bring down the four dams, the last of which was removed Aug. 11.

The river, he said, “is about rafting and hiking and fishing.”

“It’s not about industrial mining,” he added. “To have this adversely affect what this is all about is a shame.”

Lesley Adams, who works for KSWild, another environmental group, said she feared for the health of the salmon runs that the Rogue has in more abundance than any other Oregon river but the Columbia.

Dam removals “have made great strides in restoring the salmon runs,” she said. But, she added, “while we’re working so hard to restore this river, we’re letting gasoline-powered engines suck up the bottom of the river.”

Bill Meyers, the Rogue Basin coordinator for the state Department of Environmental Quality, was less concerned, saying that new, tighter permit restrictions should protect the river, “provided the dredgers are following their permits.”

For their part, the miners, many of them escaping a temporary dredging ban across the state line in California, see themselves as citizens whose rights are under siege.

Frank Werberger, 71, a retired pipe welder who drove up from his home in Ojai, Calif., to dredge the Rogue, said of his environmentalist adversaries: “They attack dredgers first because we’re the ones they dislike the most. Then they will attack fishermen and kayakers. Then rafters.”

A nugget of gold weighing three-quarters of an ounce dangles from a leather string on his chest, a reminder of the thrill of finding gold winking amid the gravel in a sluice pan.

Another prospector, Dave Bray, 47, is a native of the Rogue Valley. Emerging from the waters of the Rogue, he pulled down the top of his wetsuit and talked about his feeling that his hobby was “spiritual.” Fish, he said, come and swim around him, eating the insect life dislodged by his dredging hose.

His friend Ken Kriege, 54, of Ontario, Calif., added that prospecting had environmental benefits, like loosening compacted gravel, which provides a better spawning surface for fish, and removing toxic metals, like the mercury left behind by Oregon’s 19th-century gold miners.

As for damage, Mr. Kriege said that the dredges’ impact on the riverbed was “like fluffing a pillow,” and that the recent removal of nearby Gold Ray dam had turned the river into “chocolate milk,” creating more temporary turbidity than any dredger.

Senator Atkinson and the environmental leaders point out that many cars parked along the river carry California license plates.

But Beth Moore, general permits coordinator for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, said 1,205 dredging permits had been issued this year, up from 934 in 2009. Of 432 new applications, only about 54 — or 12.5 percent — of the permits went to Californians.

The prospectors must follow newly stringent state rules aimed at keeping a distance between dredges and reducing the size of their hoses.

The removal of dams in the area of the Rogue River near Grants Pass and Gold Hill, about 12 miles north of Medford, Ore., has been both a blessing and a curse to the miners.

(Page 2 of 2)

On the one hand, there is the possibility that the piles of gravel from behind the Rogue dams will contain previously overlooked gold. On the other, the rush of silt in the days after a dam breach makes dredging as pleasant as driving in a thick fog.

Leah Nash for The New York Times

Gold dredgers from Texas, California and Arizona have descended on the Rogue River, many calling themselves the New 49’ers.

Rogue RiverNoise is the most obvious environmental impact of suction dredging, but not the most studied. Over the last 25 years, scientific studies have raised questions about other effects on riverine ecosystems, but have come to no clear conclusion.

The dredges can suck up fish eggs and small fry. But the season for dredging is in the summer, when little or no spawning is under way. The miners also carve out what Mr. Atkinson called “massive holes” in the riverbed, leaving piles of gravel just below the dredge, and uproot the insect colonies that are the bottommost link of the aquatic food chain. But the sudden cloud of insects also draws fish in to feed, the insect colonies reform within weeks or months, and high winter flows on the river can rearrange and smooth out the gravel piles.

A 2009 review of scientific studies by the California Department of Fish and Game highlighted numerous concerns about dredging’s environmental effects, but found no unambiguous or lasting harm to a river’s ecosystem.

Unless, that is, the neighbors in that ecosystem are included.

Dave Christiensen, 66, a retired landscape construction manager, owns a second home just below Gold Ray dam. “This year, these guys are going seven days a week,” he said. “We’ve asked them, ‘Could you put mufflers on these things?’ They say, ‘We have a permit and the government allows us to do this.’”

Mr. Bray, the dredger, said that his encounters with neighbors had been generally cordial. “I’ve converted some,” he added.

Not Terrell and Sharon Smith of Gold Hill, who on Monday circulated an e-mail among the antidredging forces. “No one seems to be addressing what the homeowners are going through with fouled irrigation pumps from the silt and gravel the dredgers are kicking up,” they wrote.

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New 49'rs...... a cancer to dredging. Dave Mack and his goons will ruin dredging in Oregon just like they did in California...........told ya so a long time ago!

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New 49'rs...... a cancer to dredging. Dave Mack and his goons will ruin dredging in Oregon just like they did in California...........told ya so a long time ago!

I don't know a lot about the new 49'ers but it sounds like they're too public. I read that they had a big issue on the klamath and that's what led to the ca ban on dredging. With the EPA and all the environuts these days it should be obvious that mums the word. When your out there saying I've got a permit, I'm allowed to do this that's not a good path to go down, you're going to eventually lose. Just the club name the New 49'ers is a bad move. It just brings to the surface all the destruction the old miners did. Not a good game plan if you want to keep mining...

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Seems all humans need a PR dept to manage what is said.

but what the hay, I've got something for the 2 legged varmits.

oops!! lol

I don't know a lot about the new 49'ers but it sounds like they're too public. I read that they had a big issue on the klamath and that's what led to the ca ban on dredging. With the EPA and all the environuts these days it should be obvious that mums the word. When your out there saying I've got a permit, I'm allowed to do this that's not a good path to go down, you're going to eventually lose. Just the club name the New 49'ers is a bad move. It just brings to the surface all the destruction the old miners did. Not a good game plan if you want to keep mining...

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