Brown signs bill protecting salmon habitat from river mining

Gov. Kate Brown signed a bill Wednesday that protects thousands of miles of critical salmon habitat across much of western Oregon from suction dredge mining.

The governor’s signature is the final action in a years-long push to ban or place tougher restrictions on suction dredge mining, which environmental groups have long argued is damaging to habitat for salmon and Pacific lampreys.

About five years ago, the number of miners in primarily Southwest Oregon ballooned to more than 2,000, prompting lawmakers to pass a temporary moratorium in 2013.

The bill signed into law by Brown raises permitting costs to $250 a year for the river miners, capped the total number of permits statewide to 200, and restricts the hours when permitted miners can search for metals.

Former State Sen. Alan Bates, D-Ashland, who died last August at the age of 71, pushed for a similar bill in 2016. The 2017 version passed with bipartisan support. Ashland Republican Alan DeBoer, who succeeded Bates, supported the reforms.

Environmental groups celebrated Brown’s finishing touch on the bill in a news release.

“With support from Democrats and Republicans in urban and rural Oregon, the Governor’s support for this legislation represents a critical step forward to protect the health of Oregon’s rivers and the communities that rely upon them,” Stacey Detwiler, conservation director with Rogue Riverkeeper, said in the statement.

Suction dredge miners search river bottoms for gold and other precious metals, using a hose to suck gravel from river bottoms, with a motorized dredge sitting on pontoon-like boats atop the water. The gravel and sand riverbeds are critical salmon spawning grounds.

California outlawed the practice in 2009. Miners have continued to appeal that decision, most recently losing a decision in that state’s Supreme Court last year. Washington also has tighter regulations than Oregon.

“Suction dredging, in the wrong places, can have devastating impacts on Oregon’s valuable salmon runs and destroy commercial salmon fishing jobs,” Glen Spain, Northwest Regional Director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, said in a statement. “This bill achieves a better balance, simply by pulling less economic and biological harm.”

Brown’s office didn’t issue a statement Wednesday and said the governor would comment on the law at a ceremonial bill signing later this summer.

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