HAPPY CAMP, Calif. — Small-scale miners still drawn to California to chase dreams of striking it rich will have to find their gold nuggets the old-fashioned way for a while, with shovels and pans.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill Thursday in Sacramento calling an immediate moratorium throughout the state on suction dredge mining until an environmental review determines how much harm the practice is doing to struggling salmon runs.
The method was used by modern-day prospectors in wetsuits to glean the last flecks of gold from river bottoms.
The bill is a major victory for the Karuk Tribe, whose members were overrun by the original Gold Rush of the 1850s and have been trying to rein in a new swarm of hobby miners as part of their campaign to restore salmon runs at the center of their culture.
"Our original intent was not to shut down dredging statewide," said Craig Tucker, hired by the Karuk to lead their campaign to restore salmon to the Klamath River. "But because ... these mining clubs fought us so hard, we had little alternative but to challenge the rules."
They were joined by other tribes, California salmon fishermen and environmental groups in pressing the bill authored by Sen. Patricia Wiggins.
Release of mercury
The California Department of Fish and Game last updated the rules in 1994 but have yet to revise them in compliance with a 2005 lawsuit brought by the Karuk and their allies.
An injunction revised last month ordered the department to stop selling new dredging permits until the environmental review is completed. The legislation brings an immediate halt. Fish and Game spokeswoman Kirsten Macintyre said the study should be done by summer 2011.
Besides altering the shape of the river and stirring up silt, there is evidence dredging can release toxic mercury locked in the riverbed, which can harm young salmon and lamprey, a jawless eel-like fish that is food for salmon as well as the Karuk, scientists say.
"We offered up a compromise awhile back with some of the gold-mining folks out there," said tribal member Bob Goodwin, who still fishes the Klamath with the traditional nets tied to Douglas fir poles. "They kind of had us backed into a corner. We kept pressing. We're very happy with the outcome."
3,500 permits this year
The state this year issued 3,500 dredge mining permits to people from around the country. Many are held by the 2,000 members of a gold mining club based in Happy Camp, an economically struggling, former timber town on the Klamath River in Northern California.
Dave McCracken, a former Navy seal who founded the club and assembled mining claims covering some 60 miles of the Klamath River and its tributaries, said he and the members will have to be content with panning and other techniques until the review is completed.
"For commercial activity, dredging is what gains you access to high-grade gold deposits at the bottom of the river," he said. "It's the only way to get at them. It's going to be tough to make money at it."
When miners killed Karuk people and destroyed their villages in the 1850s, the survivors faded into the hills, where they eked out a living hunting deer, fishing for salmon and even panning a little gold to buy flour for frybread.
Bitter memories, fun adventure
A century and a half later, members of the Karuk Tribe have mixed feelings about the fight. Many harbor bitter memories of stories told by their grandparents of the miners destroying villages and washing down whole hillsides with giant hydraulic nozzles to get at the gold mixed in with the quartz and serpentine that color the rocks blue-green, gray and white.
"We just barely made it through that experience," said Florence Conrad, a member of the tribal council, while sitting at a picnic table at Katimiin, the place her grandparents taught her was the center of the world.
It was near the site that stories say Coyote tricked two women into releasing the salmon they had dammed up in their house. Tribe fishermen still net salmon at Ishi Pishi Falls, though the numbers have dwindled to a few dozen.
The moratorium came as remodeling contractor Matt Lauer, 37, of Portage, Wisconsin, and Aaron Webb, 38, of Rapids, Wisc., who recently sold a knife sharpening business, were getting ready to go home after their first taste of the thrill of finding raw gold.
Immersed in the river in their wetsuits, prying out rocks to get the dredge hose down to the bedrock where the gold is lodged, they regularly find themselves looking at each other and smiling at the idea of having fun and making money at the same time.
"It's an adventure," said Webb.
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