Protecting Oregon’s rivers

Protecting Oregon’s rivers
Bill would limit suction dredge mining on waterways
Register Guard Editorial

March 4, 2013

Nearly a quarter century has passed since Oregon last updated the State Scenic Waterways Program, which increases protection for the state’s most treasured rivers and limits destructive activities such as suction-dredge mining.

The program, overwhelmingly approved by state voters in 1970, is long overdue for an update — especially in light of a recent surge in suction dredge mining on the state’s waterways, including the Rogue, Chetco and Illinois rivers.

State Sen. Alan Bates, D-Ashland, has introduced a bill that would expand the inventory of rivers in the scenic system to 30 from the current 19. It’s a modest yet strategically important proposal that would provide protection for one-half of 1 percent of the state’s rivers and streams, up from a current one-third of 1 percent. That’s hardly a conservation overreach, especially given the threat posed by suction-dredge mining.

Protected by a ludicrously outdated and environmentally indifferent 1872 federal mining law, miners have descended on some of Oregon’s wildest rivers with motorized suction dredges to search for gold and other minerals. The dredges suck up rocks and gravel from stream bottoms and dump them in a floating sluice. The gold sinks and is trapped, while the remainder is returned to the river or its banks.

Suction-dredge miners insist they’re merely rearranging the river bottom and are improving fish habitat. The opposite is true. Dredging fills spaces that oxygenate the water and provide habitat for insects that fish eat. Mining clouds normally clear rivers with fine sediment and unearths mercury deposits buried on the river bottom.

Several years ago the California Legislature wisely imposed a moratorium on suction dredging to give state fish and wildlife officials time to study the effects of mining on fish habitat and to devise new regulations.

Oregon lawmakers should have done the same to protect the state’s rivers and fish stocks. They failed to do so despite the urging of lawmakers such as then-state Sen. Jason Atkinson, a Central Point Republican and avid outdoorsman who minced no words in describing the damage caused by suction dredge prospectors: “They ruin — destroy — spawning habitat,” he said.

With California’s rivers off-limits to suction dredging until 2016, miners have turned to the rivers of Southwest Oregon, which feature some of the finest runs of salmon and steelhead in the lower 48 states. Miners have staked out claims along the Chetco, South Kalmiopsis, Illinois and Rogue rivers. A few have ventured as far north as the Metolius and John Day, as well as Quartz Creek, a tributary of the McKenzie River.

Bates’ bill would protect the Chetco, Rogue, Illinois and other Southern Oregon rivers that have been at the center of the dredge mining debate. It would also protect other waterways, including the Metolius, John Day, Grand Ronde, Sandy, Middle Fork Willamette and Yachats rivers, as well a portion of the upper McKenzie that is not already listed as an Oregon Scenic Waterway.

If these and other rivers proposed by Bates are added to the scenic waterways system, protection would extend to land a quarter mile on each side. Mining, logging, road building, construction of new buildings and other activities in those corridors would be subject to review by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (existing development would not be affected and property owners would retain the right to use land outside the corridor).

Suction dredge mining has no place in Oregon waterways, and Bates’ bill is on target. The Legislature should give it careful consideration, reviewing the rivers proposed for protection and considering additions, and then take the necessary action to protect the state’s rivers.