The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) recently proposed to open the South Fork Clearwater River to recreational dredge mining, even as illegal miners continue to openly violate the Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts and threaten fish habitat and water quality.

During the summer of 2015, dozens of out-of-state (and some Idaho) dredge miners rolled up State Hwy 14, set up camps and ran their gasoline-powered dredges in designated critical habitat for endangered fish. The miners knew they were dredging without permits required to operate on the  Forest Service-administered South Fork Clearwater River.  And they were openly violating the  Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts  by failing to secure necessary discharge permits from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Last summer, the Forest Service issued notices of noncompliance to a handful of miners, but the agency refused to cite the miners or require them to remove their equipment from the river. As a result, the miners continued their illegal dredging until the end of the season.

This illegal dredging follows an increasingly regular pattern.  Antigovernment activists disagree with the rules and laws of this  nation, but rather than working to change them, they try to intimidate the  federal government-in the meantime harming clean water, fish and wildlife that belong to all of us. The problem is, they appear to be getting away with it.

What About the State?

In addition to obtaining the necessary federal permits, suction dredge miners are supposed to apply to the Idaho Department of Water Resources (IDWR) for a statewide stream-alteration permit akin to a fishing license. But the agency has only two largely desk-bound staff to administer hundreds of dredge permits across the entire  state. The $10 permit ($30 for out-of-staters) limits dredge mining in the South Fork Clearwater River to July 15 to August 15. Though numerous violations of the state permit were noted last year, no citations were issued.

The state also has a plan  that recognizes the importance of the South Fork Clearwater. This plan requires that individual dredge mining sites be scrutinized and approved by a fish biologist. Although the plan has been in place since 2005, the IDWR has so far failed to implement its terms.

What Is Suction Dredge Mining Anyway?

Imagine a high-powered vacuum floating on pontoons. The miner dives to the bottom of the stream and sucks up gravel and sediment with a large hose, excavating down to the bedrock. The dredged material (sediment, gravels, rock and water) is discharged through a sluice box on the back of the floating dredge, capturing the gold, and spewing the sediment and gravel back into the water. Piles of discharged sediment can restrict the flow of rivers, change hydrology and leave unstable  holes that can persist in the streambed.

The practice can wreak havoc on fish habitat and stream water quality:

  • Sediment discharged by the dredges can smother fish eggs, affect overall fish health and further threaten endangered and sensitive fish species.
  • Gravel deposited behind the dredges can create unstable spawning beds, which can be attractive to fish yet fail to provide the stable substrate the eggs need to survive.
  • Holes created by dredging can persist, altering river flow, leading to downstream erosion and creating dangerous wading conditions for boaters and anglers.
  • Mercury, embedded in the gravels and river sediment,  can be released into the water column, threatening public health, aquatic species and downstream users.
  • Fisheries biologists, hydrologists and others agree that the impact from suction dredge mining is harmful to fish and threatens water quality. That’s why restrictions, limitations or statewide bans have been put in place in Idaho, Oregon, California, and other western states.
  • Dredges can harm stream banks and streamside vegetation as the equipment is hauled in and out of the water or used to dredge beneath the banks.

Why Is the South Fork Important?

The South Fork Clearwater River provides habitat for numerous sensitive species and is designated as critical habitat for species listed under the Endangered Species Act, including steelhead, bull trout, Chinook salmon, Pacific lamprey and others.

The river and some of its tributaries-including Red River, Crooked River, American River, Newsome Creek and others-are recovering from decades of historic dredge mining. In fact, the Forest Service, EPA and other agencies have invested millions of dollars to restore fish habitat in the Crooked River after years of industrial dredge mining. Restored fisheries in the area have been estimated to be worth $23 million to the local economy.

While the current dredge mines operate on a much smaller scale, the watersheds deserve a chance to recover from historic damage. And miners should demonstrate their willingness to comply with the law before we open more sensitive areas to their recreational pastime.

What’s Being Proposed?

Even though many dredge miners have consistently refused to follow the rules, the Forest Service and BLM are setting up a program that would allow up to 15 mining operations on South Fork Clearwater River in 2016. The proposal would also allow 20 mining operations on French and Orogrande Creeks,  two tributaries to the North Fork Clearwater that provide habitat for bull and cutthroat trout.

Dredge miners would be required to follow myriad rules. While a step in the right direction, we fear that the agencies are unlikely to have the resources to manage the program or hold scofflaw dredgers to account.

The Forest Service and BLM’s environmental assessment also fails to analyze the impacts of opening the areas to additional dredge mining. According to the Forest Service “the analysis wasn’t complete,” but they still wanted to solicit public input on the proposal. What’s the point of a environmental assessment that includes no analysis?

Nonetheless, ICL is submitting comments on the proposal and raising concerns with the lack of oversight, cumulative effects from ongoing illegal dredging, direct and indirect impacts to fish species and their habitat, and impacts to public health and water quality.

So What’s the End Game?

According to the Forest Service and BLM, once this plan is in place, they will be better able to enforce existing laws and regulations. That’s the same thing we heard in 2013 when the EPA issued its general permit-and in 2014, and in 2015… With hundreds of illegal dredge miners operating across the state each year, not a single citation has been issued.

Ultimately, there are places in Idaho where dredgers can engage in their hobby without breaking laws and  threatening sensitive species and their habitat. The South Fork Clearwater River, French and Orogrande Creeks simply aren’t the right place to allow expanded dredge mining.

Instead, places like the South Fork Clearwater should be protected for critical values for fishing, clean water, and nondestructive recreational activities. After all, some things are simply  more precious  than gold.