A conflict which in some ways has been ongoing since white miners first arrived on the Klamath River in the late 1840s, has flared up in recent years amid claims that suction dredge mining negatively impacts salmon and the aquatic ecosystems on which salmon depend. This year the conflict has grown into a virtual wildfire as proponents and opponents trade accusations and insults in the press.
The issue is so-called recreational gold mining which entails individuals and organizations exploiting provisions of an 1872 mining law in order to camp free for months along the Klamath River and its tributaries and to operate suction dredges which sweep the beds of rivers and streams seeking the elusive glint of gold. The 1872 mining law allows miners to remove minerals from federal land without paying royalties and to live on their claims while they conduct mining operations. Efforts to rewrite the law in recent years have not been successful.
Bringing support and litigation power to the Karuk Tribe, Klamath Riverkeeper and the Tribe challenged approval of the practice by the California Department of Fish and Game in 2006. Fish and Game officials agreed to do an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) examining the practice and then reneged on the promise. The Tribe and Riverkeeper then asked state senator Pat Wiggins to sponsor a bill to ban recreational suction dredge mining pending completion of an EIR examining the practice.
Senator Wiggins' bill – SB 670 - passed the California State Senate in late May by a vote of 31 to 8. The bill next heads to the Assembly for consideration. SB 670 is an “urgency” measure, meaning that it would take effect immediately upon passage by both houses of the Legislature and signing by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. But the Governator has vetoed bills to ban suction dredging in the past and it remains unclear whether he will sign SB 670.
Siskiyou County and some rural Northern California newspapers have decried the potential ban as an attack on local economies which have become more dependent on all form of recreation in recent years. Recreational mining supporters claim that suction dredging actually helps salmon by depositing clean gravel downstream. They point out that salmon regularly choose these clean gravel deposits.
Most fisheries biologists and many restorationists, however, have observed that these gravel beds are not stable and often blow out during high winter flows dispersing any salmon eggs which were deposited in the gravel. Salmon eggs in mining spoils can also become dewatered when stream levels fall before the rains arrive (see photo below from the Lower Scott River). For these and other reasons, many fisheries biologists believe suction dredge mining results in lower salmon production.
Other critics of recreational mining say it should not be considered mining in the sense of the 1872 federal law. That law was designed to spur development of the country’s mineral resources. Recreation was not contemplated. These critics say the Forest Service and other land management agencies should regulate suction dredging as “recreation” – not as mining. Recreators are not allowed to camp next to rivers and streams or to disturb the bed and banks of waterbodies.
Meanwhile, the conflict has become ugly. Responding to a Sacramento Bee editorial by Karuk Vice-chairman Leaf Hillman, Jeff McCracken – president of the New Forty-Niners recreational mining club – denied Hillman’s claim that the gold miners who came to Klamath Country in the late 1800s "attempted genocide" on the Karuk Tribe. Calling it an “absurd and ugly charge” McCracken claimed that “Hillman knows there is not a shred of historical evidence to support his claim.”
Actually the historical evidence is quite clear. For example, in his Life Amongst the Modocs – Unwritten History, Joaquin Miller - who mined on the Klamath during the 1850s – describes how miners attacked and wiped out a Shasta village on Humbug Creek in what is now Siskiyou County. And in his book Little White Father – Redick McKee on the California Frontier historian Ray Raphael presents historical documents confirming numerous instances of white miners and settlers organizing to “exterminate” whole villages and ultimately even entire tribes.
One individual who mined in Karuk territory near the mouth of the Salmon River was Tom Hinton, known locally as “Wooley”. Historian Raphael quotes one of McKee’s reports gleaned from US Senate archives: "Wooley came into the tent.....swearing that he would shoot Indians whenever he could find them; that he had done so, and would continue to do so."
Wooley Creek – which contains sites of spiritual importance to the Karuk People - was apparently named after this notorious Indian murderer. Some local residents would like to see the creek's name changed.
Newspaper accounts of the time and numerous documents preserved by the Siskiyou County Historical Society attest to the fact that miners and other whites regularly practiced vigilantism targeting Indians and even organized a “campaign of extermination” against the Indians of the central Klamath, Shasta and Scott. These documents are housed in the Siskiyou County Museum at Yreka and are available to those who care to study them.
The current recreational mining controversy has brought the specter of racial conflict once again to the fore in Klamath Country. True to historical form, Siskiyou County’s elected officials - led by Supervisor Marcia Armstrong - side with white miners and attack Karuk leaders.
Racism appears to be alive and well in Klamath Country. We expect it will continue to surface from time to time and continue to undermine community cohesion. Some residents believe a process of Truth and Reconciliation – which sorts out, acknowledges and reconciles the history of white–red relations – will prove necessary before residents of the Klamath River Basin can finally overcome the area’s bloody history and move on to a future that celebrates – not just tolerates – diversity.
But who has the courage to lead such an effort?