Tom Kitchar has a theory of mining. It goes something like this:
Way, way back, when humans first came down from the trees, someone picked up a certain rock and realized it was useful.
It was heavy or sharp or easy to grip and use. It was a weapon. It was some sort of tool.
Soon everyone wanted one of these rocks. And those who went out to find and collect them were the first miners.
“There’s something in some of us that drives us – sometimes illogically – to give up everything we’ve got and go looking for something,” says Kitchar, who has been mining in Southern Oregon for about 30 years.
He worries his time as a miner will come to an end if state lawmakers allow a moratorium to go forward on the controversial method he and others use to extract gold.
Kitchar spends his summers working the streams and rivers in the southwest part of the state with a suction dredge. The gold mining technique uses large floating vacuums to suck up rocky streambeds and sift out precious metals.
The work is physically demanding. The miners have to spend hours on end immersed in cold mountain streams operating the suction hose and moving aside rocks that are too big for the dredge. They suck out large holes, sometimes eight to 12 feet deep, trying get down to the bedrock where gold nuggets settle into the cracks.
Kitchar contends that federal mining law gives him the right to mine his claims.
That’s true, but it can be a bit more complicated, says John Mellgren of the Western Environmental Law Center. Mellgren is involved in a lawsuit trying to force the U.S. Forest Service to consult wildlife agencies before authorizing suction dredge mining on federal lands.
“The mining laws are all very old. What a lot of miners are relying upon are laws from the 1800s, whereas environmental laws are much more recent,” he says. “Theoretically they’re supposed to work in concert together, but there are some conflicts.”
Like just how states are allowed regulate mining.
California is dealing with right now. The state effectively banned suction dredge mining in 2009. Miners challenged the law in court, saying the state has no legal authority to ban mining on federal lands because federal law doesn’t allow it. That case is currently in appeals, with a judge most recently ruling in favor of miners.
Lawmakers in the Northwest are wading into that debate as well.
Washington lawmakers have a bill before them this session that would restrict this type of mining while the issue is being studied.
Oregon, which saw an increase in suction dredge permit applications after the California ban went into effect, has capped the total number of permits it will issue. In addition, a 2013 law restricts suction dredging and calls for a five-year moratorium beginning in 2016, unless a new regulatory framework is approved.
Kitchar stands on a bridge over the Illinois River, looking upstream about a quarter mile to the mouth of Josephine Creek. It’s a significant spot, he says. It’s the place where a group of white settlers first found gold in the state.
It triggered a gold rush in Southern Oregon around the same time the Forty-Niners were en route to California. Soon after, in the early 1850s, they formed the Waldo Mining District. Kitchar is the current district president and the keeper of its history.
“We were the government in this area and the miners made their own rules. We could hang people. We could condemn your property -- so I could dump tailings in your living room,” he says. “Nothing could get in the way of mining in those days.”
Kitchar came to Oregon in the mid-1980s. He credits his brand of gold-fever to an article from Mother Earth News, boasting vacationers could pay their way by panning for gold in the West.
"Like thousands and millions before me, we fell for it. We sold everything we owned, outfitted an old pickup, and on October first, left Minnesota,” he says.
And like millions before him, it didn’t really work out. Kitchar ended up working four years at an underground gold mine in South Dakota, learning the trade. Then he headed to Oregon.
For fish ecologist Jeremiah Osborne-Gowey, who grew up panning for gold and working suction dredges in Southern Oregon, the issue is all about finding an equilibrium.
“How do we go about go about balancing the values placed for taking my kids out and mining for gold versus taking my kids out and going fishing for fish that may be there?” he asks.
Osborne-Gowey says in the short-term, suction dredge mining can hurt salmon and bull trout. It stirs up sediment and destabilizes the streambed where fish lay their eggs -- although to prevent such impacts, suction dredging is not allowed during times of the year when fish are known to spawn.
Scientists and environmentalists are also concerned about mussels, lampreys and the potential for damage to the base of the food chain. In addition, suction dredge mining can stir up (and remove some) mercury that would otherwise remain sequestered in streambeds.
And those effects can be even more acute depending on where miners work, says Forrest English of Rogue Riverkeeper.
“There’s a lot of talk about how the Rogue and the Umpqua are the most dredged rivers in the state. And there’s a lot of focus on the hardships the landowners face with dozens of dredges right outside their doors. And navigation for rafting companies to get through,” he says.
But English says there’s a substantial amount of dredging happening on small streams and rivers.
“The impacts that we’re talking about are magnified in those smaller systems,” he says. “If you have a three-foot wide stream, its very hard to do mining in any way that is not going to cause substantial damage to the stream banks and the stream bed.”
But once you look beyond short-term and localized effects of the dredges, the science is very thin.
“There haven’t been many studies looking at cumulative long-term impacts. Some of the mining interest may claim there’s nothing in the literature that shows that and they are accurate. But that doesn’t mean that there is not the potential for long-term cumulative impacts,” Osbourne-Gowey says.
He says he expects to see some of these research holes filled over the next decade.
A study group convened last year by then-Gov. John Kitzhaber’s office considered the lack of research on the long term effects of suction dredge mining and recommended lawmakers take a precautionary approach. Consequently the study group suggested further restricting suction dredge mining on private and public waterways.
The study group’s findings were supposed to lead to new legislation, but nothing materialized before Kitzhaber resigned in mid-February.
Senate Bill 208, backed by Democrats, would establish a task force on suction dredge mining, but includes none of the recommendations made by the governor’s study group.
The only substantive bill before the legislature, Senate Bill 184, more closely represents what miners want, and was introduced by Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas.
“You have one side up on the table and aired in public, and what we really want to do is get the other side up and see where is common ground,” he says.
But that other side may not come. Gov. Kate Brown’s office would not say if she planned to continue her predecessor’s work on the issue. If she doesn’t, and the legislature doesn’t push through a new law this term, a five-year moratorium on suction dredge mining will go into effect.
That could be devastating for Kitchar, who stands not only to lose his livelihood, but his home as well.
“Then basically everything I’ve worked for since I’ve moved out here in the mid 1980s has been for nothing,” he says. “Not only that, I will be homeless. I live on a mining claim. And I can only live on a mining claim if I’m actively mining.”
But Kitchar acknowledges that mining has always been a risky industry rife with booms and busts.
Only now, he says, the risky part isn’t locating the gold. It’s whether you can get permission to stick your dredge in the water.