EUREKA — After years of fighting, the Karuk Tribe feels it got a major win Thursday that will help protect vulnerable fish populations.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill Thursday authored by Sen. Patricia Wiggins, D-Santa Rosa, placing a short-term ban on suction dredge mining, a controversial gold mining technique that some feel pollutes rivers and streams, threatening salmon and other fish populations.
Craig Tucker, the Klamath campaign coordinator for the Karuk Tribe, said Thursday's news is the culmination of the tribe's years-long fight to rein in the practice of suction dredge mining by getting the state Department of Fish and Game to overhaul its dredging restrictions and place limits on what areas can be mined, when they can be mined and the size of equipment that can be used.
"The Karuk Tribe, as well as others, have been working on this for a number of years," Tucker said. "Today is a big win."
Suction dredging sucks sand and gravel from the bottom of a stream and sends it into equipment that recovers the heavier gold. The gravel and sand is then sent back into the stream.
The New '49ers Club, which is located in Happy Camp and offers customers a "true life gold prospecting adventure," opposed the bill, saying mining restrictions would severely limit its moneymaking opportunities. Club owner Dave McCracken was not immediately available for comment Thursday.
Wiggins bill, S.B. 670, places a moratorium on suction dredge mining in California streams until the DFG finishes a court-ordered overhaul of regulations that govern the mining practice. According to Tucker, DFG will use the California Environmental Quality Act process to access the impacts of the mining practice, and that consequently, the process might take 18 months to three years to complete.
In a news release, Wiggins said her legislation will help address the decline of salmon, steelhead and trout populations throughout California. Calling the governor's support for the bill "a boost for the state's commercial fishing industry," Wiggins said his signing of the bill "is a victory for the fish."
With salmon fishing seasons canceled throughout almost the entire state, Wiggins said her bill is also about equity.
"The current ban on salmon fishing affects the livelihoods of thousands of commercial fishermen, fish processors and charter boat operators," Wiggins said in the release. "The ban has eliminated hundreds of thousands of dollars in economic activity — especially in rural areas.
"This bill will create economic equity," she continued. "We can't ask an entire fishing industry to stop its work while allowing a small group of mostly recreational hobbyists to continue a practice that harms fishery resources."
Back in 2005, DFG was ordered by the courts to overhaul its suction dredge mining regulations on the heels of a lawsuit filed by the Karuk Tribe. But, to date, that has not happened. In July, an Alameda County Superior Court judge ordered a moratorium on new dredging permits, but S.B. 670 immediately suspends the practice for existing permits as well.
According to the Associated Press, about 3,500 permits are issued each year for suction dredge mining in California, where people come from around the country to experience the rush of finding raw gold in the same rivers and streams to which prospectors flocked as much as 150 years ago.
Tucker said the Karuk Tribe initially attempted to negotiate only modest mining restrictions, but that miners "went ballistic." Now, some five years later, the practice is suspended indefinitely.
"We just want to make sure this hobby mining has a minimal impact on fish," Tucker said. "It's interesting — we never set out at the beginning of this to be part of an effort to ban dredging statewide, but it was the mining companies on the Klamath that just kind of brought us to this point."