BOISE, Idaho — A recreational miner in Idaho now has the exclusive right to mine for gold on a stretch of the Salmon River. The lease process approved by the Idaho Land Board this week raises some questions about the suction dredge technique he will use to get the gold.
There are hundreds of miles on the Salmon River where the only noise you’ll hear is rushing water and wildlife. But in certain places during the summer you might hear the roar of twin engine floating dredges.
The engines are attached to a small boat. The set up allows gold miners to suck dirt from the bottom of the river and extract small gold particles from the riverbed. It’s called suction dredge mining and Ricky Eddy does this north of Riggins.
“It’s just a thrill, when you see gold. It’s like…it will give you gold fever,” he says with a chuckle. “It’s for real.”
Eddy and his friend are from Sacramento, Calif. They came here to do small-scale dredge gold mining on the Salmon River.
This type of mining is being done throughout the West. Oregon has 1,300 permit holders. Idaho has 700 this year. That’s higher than it was five years ago. Now a single ounce of gold is worth $1,500 — nearly double its value in 2007.
But even at today’s gold prices, don’t plan on striking it rich - on a good day it’s possible to collect a quarter of an ounce. Most never get that lucky.
California has a moratorium on suction dredge mining. State leaders there put a stop to the practice until they can develop regulations for the 3,500 miners who have permits. Eddy is one of them. He is convinced mining has little impact on the river.
He points to a biological study. The only negative impact it identified is the potential that sucking gravel and dirt from the river bottom could destroy eggs laid there by salmon and steelhead.
“That was the only impact they ever found. So they don’t allow us to dredge when the fish are spawning,” Eddy says.
The study Eddy refers to isn’t widely recognized by state regulators in California. Eddy also says miners help remove small amounts of mercury and lead weights used by fishermen on the Salmon River.
Roy Akins is an outfitter from Riggins and he disagrees with Eddy’s claim that miners do more good than harm by sucking out lead fishing weights in their pursuit of gold.
“In a lot of cases it’s probably better to have it stable and hidden down there in the river,” he says.
Akins takes paying customers on fishing trips during the summer months on the Salmon River. It’s a big business - about ten thousand people float the Salmon River every year. He describes this section of river as calm and quiet except for a nearby rapid. But you can’t hear that rapid over the sound of the engines on the dredge.
At one point the dredge ran out of gas and it got quiet. The only sound is the dull roar of the Time Zone rapid about 100 yards away.
In Riggins, mining has split the town in half. On one side, there are those who survive on suction dredge mining. Using the small profits they make selling gold to pay the bills. On the other side, outfitters like Akins depend on fishing and feel suction dredge mining hurts business.
It has forced some states to reevaluate how they regulate suction dredge mining.
In Idaho, Mike Conklin of Grangeville asked the Idaho Land Board this week to approve a mineral lease on a half mile stretch of the Salmon River. He wants exclusive rights to mine this area. To do that he needs a mining permit from the Idaho Department of Water Resources and a mineral lease from the Idaho Department of Lands which the board signed off on this week.
The Idaho Conservation League’s Jonathan Oppenheimer isn’t pleased with the decision.
“We think that Idahoans and citizens from around the country and around the world put a much higher value on clean water and pristine habitat that the Salmon River represents,” Oppenheimer says.
One of Oppenheimer’s big concerns is the lack of federal Clean Water Act enforcement. In Idaho - the EPA hasn’t enforced the law when it comes to suction dredge miners on the Salmon River.
Dave Tomten with the Environmental Protection Agency says no permits have been issued for any miner on the Salmon River. That means any dredge mining on the river is technically illegal and the penalty is a $30,000 fine. The EPA has instead focused on developing a general mining permit for Idaho. The agency plans to release that at the end of the year. The new permit could restrict mining on the Salmon River altogether says Oppenheimer.
Jonathan Oppenheimer says he hopes when the new regulations are released, the EPA starts enforcing regulations.
Despite the divide in Riggins over suction dredge mining, some here believe there can be a way to coexist in a town with few jobs. Even Akins says he could tolerate dredge mining if it was better regulated and didn’t interfere with his business.
“It’s just something that needs to be looked at better,” he says. “We need to find a better way to do both activities so that we are not interfering with each other and creating conflicts.”
Congrats to David James for his winning submission, 'Annabella smelling the Balsam.'
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