On June 29th the Sacramento Bee reported that the newly enacted California state budget extends indefinitely the ban on suction dredge mining within California rivers and streams. A previously enacted ban was due to expire in 2016; the new provision will remain indefinitely unless the in-stream mining program administered by the California Department of Fish & Game can be made "self-supporting" and "unless unavoidable environmental impacts are addressed." While mining advocates deny it, the preponderance of scientific information holds that suction dredge mining degrades salmon habitat and frees highly toxic mercury previously trapped in bottom sediments.
The Bee article quoted mining advocate Rachel Dunn who called the legislature's new moratorium "a scam" and vowed to challenge the budget action in court. It is unlikely, however, that such a lawsuit - if it is filed - would be successful. Like earlier court decisions, the new moratorium rests on solid factual ground: the real risks to fish and humans which suction dredging entails.It has also long been established that governments can charge fees equal to the cost of administering programs serving distinct groups of "users". Similarly, the validity of requiring environmental review for activities with potential to damage water quality and public trust resources including fisheries is well established in both state and federal law.
Suction dredge on the Scott River
Once a common sight, gold dredging has been banned in California since 2009
Defeat and Retaliation
The recent budget action is the latest in a string of defeats for so-called recreational mining. Backed by key state legislators, opponents of dredging have prevented suction dredges from operating in California waters since December 2006.
Prior to the 2006 court injunction and subsequent legislative bans, hundreds of suction dredge miners spent summers living for free on public lands along the Klamath, its tributaries and other California rivers. While camping at one location within national forests has long been limited to a maximum 14-day stay, recreational miners were allowed to camp on national forest land for the entire summer and longer under the supposition that the activity was sanctioned by the 1872 mining law.
Until the Karuk Tribe and its allies challenged it, the US Forest Service and other federal land management agencies accepted the claim that the 1872 mining law allowed unlimited occupancy of suction dredge mining sites on public land. Neither those agencies nor the California Department of Fish & Game performed environmental review to consider impacts from individual in-stream mining operations or from the cumulative impacts when hordes of suction dredge operators congregated in areas where dredging was turning up gold.
While some have long questioned whether the 1872 law - intended to facilitate commercial mining - properly applies to an activity which is recreational, that claim has not yet been litigated. Instead suction dredge approval by the California Department of Fish & Game and by the US Forest Service has been successfully challenged under both the California Environmental Quality Act and the federal Endangered Species Act.
Dredging disturbs streambeds leaving behind unsightly and unstable gravel piles
Victories by the Karuk Tribe and its allies have often been greeted with vitriolic and racist reactions from mining advocates. For example, in June 2009 KlamBlog reported that Dave McCracken - president of the New Forty-Niners mining club - publicly pilloried the Karuk Tribe and long-time Karuk leader Leaf Hillman. In his Siskiyou Daily News editorial, McCracken also parroted wide-spread, local denial of the attempted genocide perpetrated by early miners and settlers against Native American inhabitants of the Klamath River Basin.
In 2009 McCracken's organization - The New Forty-Niners - filed a retaliatory legal petition attacking ceremonial and subsistence salmon fishing as practiced by the Karuk Tribe at Kat-ee-min near the junction of the Salmon and Klamath Rivers. The petition was judged to lack factual basis and was rejected by the State of California.
Genocide and its Denial
While the 2009 KlamBlog reflected on contemporary racism and it's roots, in 2011 we followed up with a summary of historical research documenting the attempted genocide and provided links to primary sources and documents. While it is not taught in most California history classes, the historical record establishes without doubt that organized genocide was attempted in Klamath River Country, and in other locations throughout Northern California, in the years after California was admitted to the union as a "free" state.
Sanctioned by the governor and other authorities, campaigns of "extermination" were organized periodically by California miners and early settlers during the 1850s and 1860s. The objective was to prevent the establishment of reservations for California's original native inhabitants. Many miners and recent white settlers reasoned that if there were no Indians in California there would be no need for reservations.Organized genocide was attempted with the goal of preventing any land from being declared off-limits to miners seeking gold or to settlers seeking land and timber.
Although it is well documented, the attempted genocide against Indigenous natives
is denied today by many in Klamath River County and not taught in local schools
While tens to hundreds of thousands of Native Californians died in the attempted genocide, it was not wholly successful. There were some among the miners and settlers who did not support "extermination". And while dissenters rarely spoke out, they did shelter the few natives they could. Other natives escaped marauding volunteer brigades to hide out in the back country, far from white settlements.
The terror perpetrated against native peoples in the 1850s and 1860s is part of our heritage in Klamath River Country. So long as that heritage is denied, racism will continue to haunt community relations and there can be no real Peace on the River.
While traditional Indigenous natives along with environmental activists have long decried the arrogant destructiveness of most recreational miners, the current ban is largely due to the single-minded perseverance of one native leader. Leaf Hillman is what the old timers called a "Real Indian". Leaf was born deep within Karuk ancestral territory. As a young man he served in the most important Karuk ceremony - the annual World Renewal at Kat-ee-min - near where the Salmon River joins the Klamath. Leaf's family holds ceremonies in the Orleans District where he lives, within ancestral Karuk territory.
The road to the suction dredge ban has not been an easy one for Leaf Hillman. Since taking on the recreational mining invasion, Hillman has at times been viciously attacked not only by those - like the New Forty-Niners McCracken - who profit from selling "memberships" and equipment to suction dredge enthusiasts, but also by Siskiyou County officials, right wing journalist, and even a few members of his own tribe.
Through the ups and downs, Hillman's resolve has never wavered. And while years ago it looked like the cause was hopeless, it now appears Hillman's quest is headed toward a successful conclusion.
Karuk leader and salmon advocate Leaf Hillman