• By: Ted Williams
  • Photography by: Jonathan Oppenheimer

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Photograph by jonathan oppenheimer, idaho conservation league

conservation///ted williams

Suction dredging for gold, legal in most of the UNITED STATESbut especially popular in the West, is essentially a recreational form of mining. Six grand will buy you a portable gasoline-powered dredge, a sluice box, a wet suit and scuba gear, and you’re good to go (as they say). With a hose, usually four inches in diameter, you vacuum up inanimate and animate stuff from the bottom of the river, pushing away the big rocks and dislodging large woody debris. Because gold is heavier than wood, bark, gravel, fish eggs, fish fry, mussels, snails and insect larvae, it settles out in your sluice box (floating or anchored on shore). In most states you can buy a permit for less than the cost of a fishing license, but you don’t need one because there’s virtually no enforcement. In many locations the Mining Act of 1872 allows you to stake a claim to a river section and evict the public. Then you don’t even have to dredge; you can just hang out and enjoy your privatized public property.

Because you are reading this there’s a good chance you’re an angler who has fished in coldwater rivers. So you may suppose that ripping out benthic communities and large woody debris, dispersing silt and toxins, and destabilizing riffles, pools, spawning gravel and the natural processes that mold stream channels might be less than salubrious for fish like trout and salmon. Well, you would be dead wrong—at least according to all the suction dredgers I have consulted. In fact, they tell me their sport is precisely what aquatic ecosystems need, an elixir that cures whatever ails life below the surface.

I have it straight from the Western Mining Alliance that dredgers remove “hundreds of pounds of trash.” Robin Lee, of Auburn, California, explains that suction dredging “efficiently removes mercury, bird shot and lead weights.” And Tom Kitchar, president of the Waldo Mining District, in Oregon, offers this: “More young fish survive in slightly dirty water than clear water simply because they can hide better. And dredging frees the gravel that silt from hydraulic mining [the massive operations that tore down whole hillsides from the 1880s to the 1930s] cemented together.”

But there’s some disagreement. Environmental and fish-conservation groups are suing the feds and states for shoddy regulation of suction dredging. California has temporarily banned it. The Forest Service is shutting it down in critical habitat of imperiled salmonids. While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allows most states to enforce the Clean Water Act on their own, it runs the show in Idaho, where the agency has announced it will shortly ban dredging from streams sustaining bull trout, steelhead and salmon protected by the Endangered Species Act—i.e., most moving water in the state. And in Montana, Trout Unlimited, the Clark Fork Coalition and Earthworks complain that sediment from suction dredges is harming salmonids by “covering eggs with sediment . . . and inducing fish to lay eggs in [tailing] gravels that are likely to wash away.”

So, if suction dredging is good for aquatic ecosystems, how is it that state and federal managers, anglers and enviros are so down on it? I put the question to Kitchar, who explained that all the angst is being fomented by tree huggers. “These are the same people who destroyed the timber industry,” he said. “They’re actually trying to stop all mining, and they’re picking on suction dredging because it’s the most popular form.”

“But what’s the motivation?” I inquired.

“Control of the land. They’re even attempting complete mineral withdrawal of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest because it has the largest concentration of gold-bearing streams in Oregon.”

“What do you hear from fishermen?”

“They don’t like us either. They foolishly believe that once the environmentalists get rid of mining, fish populations are going to magically grow to wonderful proportions. They blame everyone but themselves for a lack of fish.”

Nothing seems to gall Kitchar more than EPA’s slavish addiction to Clean Water Act enforcement as seen in what he calls its “lunatic idea” of withdrawing critical habitat for listed salmonids in Idaho—unless it’s his perception of how the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service fling down and dance upon the Mining Act of 1872. “When we file a claim,” he says, “we have appropriated that public land for our use. The feds are supposed to be holding it for our benefit, not against it. But they just ignore all of that. So here we are with our rights to these claims; and at the same time you’ve got people fishing, hunting and hiking. Why are we sharing that right with fish or with spotted owls?”


As I review all the material the suction-dredging fraternity has kindly provided me, I see three mantras:

Mantra one: You can’t pollute a river by reintroducing stuff you took from it. “It’s like scooping up a ladle of liquids and solids from a kettle of soup, then dumping it back in,” says Kitchar. But if by scooping up the contents of a river bottom you simultaneously degrade water quality and damage aquatic ecosystems, you are defined as a polluter by common sense and case law.

Mantra two:Suction dredging removes trash and such pollutants as lead sinkers, lead shot and mercury.It’s not clear where the lead and trash wind up, but there is scant motivation for dredgers to take it home with them. Dredgers do recover and sell a good deal of mercury. Because it evaporates at barely more than room temperature, they capture it in the same sort of still one would use for making moonshine. Acid works, too. Some of the mercury in riverbeds is natural, but some is left over from hydraulic-mining days, when it was dumped into sluice boxes because it sticks to and captures small flecks of gold. But suction dredgers don’t recover all the mercury; some gets stirred up and flows away and some slips back from their sluice boxes. “As soon as that mercury hits the river it sinks down into the gravel where it came from,” says Kitchar. Well, no it doesn’t. Mercury is relatively benign in its inorganic form, especially when sequestered in a streambed. Stir it up and it’s apt to be converted to methylmercury, a deadly neurotoxin that bioaccumulates like DDT.

Mantra three: There are no studies linking suction dredging to anything but localized, short-term damage to water quality and aquatic ecosystems.True enough, but that’s like saying there are no studies linking Russian roulette to premature death. What’s lacking are studies, not damage. And, while one dredger may indeed do only localized, short-term harm, harm can be extensive when you have multiple dredgers—like the 100-plus operating in the short stretch of the Salmon River between Riggins and White Bird, Idaho, a critical area for steelhead and salmon, especially spawning fall Chinook.

In the absence of data, the burden of proof should be on the motorized miners who invade our rivers, not on the people who manage and protect them. When the Karuk Indians asked fisheries professor Dr. Peter Moyle, of the University of California at Davis, to comment on how suction dredging should be regulated on the Klamath River system he wrote: “Suction dredging should be banned [from all tributaries 500 meters above and below cool-water refuges] unless it can be proven using peer-reviewed scientific studies that the dredging has no short term or cumulative effects.”

And Moyle posts this on the California WaterBlog: “Is churning up hundreds of square meters of river bottom worth the 3.4 ounces of gold the average dredger collects in a season? The Klamath River and some of its tributaries can reach temperatures in excess of 65-70 degrees Fahrenheit during the day in late summer. Such temperatures are very stressful or even lethal for many salmonids, so the fish seek out cooler areas, where small tributaries flow into the river or there is upwelling of groundwater. Juvenile coho salmon, Chinook salmon and steelhead will often be packed into these areas during the day. When I swam in the river with a mask and snorkel to count the fish, I was struck by the concentrations of fish in the refuge areas (and the lack of them in the main river) and by how much even a minor disturbance of this habitat reduced the overall ability of the river to support fish. Adult salmon and steelhead are also subject to being disturbed by intense dredging activities. I am particularly concerned with spring-run Chinook salmon, a species with which I have worked closely. Adult spring-run Chinook spend the summer in river pools, especially the Salmon River (and its forks). They have to survive the summer without feeding, using fat reserves and oils they bring up from the ocean. Chronic disturbance of the type created by dredging and dredgers can increase stress on these fish and has the potential to reduce their over-summer survival.”

Finally, observed short-term damage by suction dredgers is sufficient to elicit long-term anxiety. InFisheries(the peer-reviewed journal of the American Fisheries Society),Bret Harvey and Thomas Lisle report that dredging “increased mortality of the early life history stages of trout,” 100 percent for un-eyed cutthroat eggs, 29 to 62 percent for eyed eggs and 80 percent for rainbow sac fry, and that “eggs of nonsalmonid fishes, which often adhere to rocks in the substrate, also are unlikely to survive.”


Among the grosser examples of bureaucratic misfeasance, at least in the eyes of suction dredgers, is the way the US Forest Service is trying to kick them out of the North Fork of the Clearwater River in Idaho, a stronghold of imperiled westslope cutts and threatened bull trout. Last summer intimidating signs started popping up along the banks instructing anglers and hikers that undetermined parts of their national forest were now “private property” and that “destroying, defacing or removing claim markers, improvements or any type of dredging mining on this [mining] claim may result in your prosecution.” On most national forestland the Mining Act of 1872 would have rendered the Forest Service powerless to interfere; and at this writing the EPA is still not enforcing the Clean Water Act permits that would keep at least law-abiding dredgers out of critical habitat for listed salmonids in Idaho. But the North Fork has been cut off from the sea by the Dworshak Dam, and on river sections upstream of such dams the law provides for stricter federal oversight.

So North Fork District Ranger Kathy Rodriguez, a manager imbued with the notion that fish, wildlife and public access, along with her agency’s multiple-use mandate, should be protected, ordered the signs taken down. Now the Forest Service is challenging these mining claims through an administrative-law judge. Suction dredgers are hardly surprised that anglers and enviros are hailing Rodriguez as a national hero. Environmental activist/author Chuck Pezeshki—with whom I have fished some of this wild, beautiful water—and Gary Macfarlane, ecosystem defense director for Friends of the Clearwater, tell me they’re encouraged to see the Forest Service standing tall and doing the right thing.

Macfarlane, knowledgeable in the ways of dredgers, perceives motive beyond lust for gold. “Under the Mining Act they can [or on the North Fork thought they could] evict the public, camp for extended periods, even put up cabins,” he says.

The folks who run the Salmon‐Challis National Forest, also in Idaho, seem to be made of the same stuff as Rodriguez, because they’ve closed their forest to suction dredging, citing concern for endangered sockeyes and threatened Chinooks, steelhead and bull trout.

I have never thought of the Idaho Conservation League as a “tree-hugger” outfit. But last October it proved itself to be one (at least to suction dredgers) by filing a legal challenge to the state’s approval of a half-mile dredging lease on the Salmon River, a challenge that succeeded in that the dredger withdrew his application.

With the soaring price of gold and the ban in California, dredging permits in Idaho have more than doubled in the past two years, to almost 1,000 in 2012. “The Wild West” is how the Idaho Conservation League’s Jonathan Oppenheimer describes the current scene. “There is no monitoring, no enforcement, and rampant violations of state and federal laws,” he declares. “I’ve talked to miners who were completely unaware of the need for any permits. And the state doesn’t have a single employee whose job it is to check. I’ve done open-record requests, and I couldn’t find a single citation that the Department of Water Resources has issued.”

The Forest Service has been less attentive to duty in California and Oregon than in Idaho. For instance, it has flouted the Endangered Species Act by failing to consult the National Marine Fisheries Service before inviting suction dredgers into critical habitat for threatened coho salmon on the Klamath and Rogue rivers, both part of the National Wild and Scenic River System.

On June 1, 2012 the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals, overturning a lower court decision, found for the Karuk tribe in its lawsuit against the Forest Service for this failure. “The Forest Service’s decision to place the search for minuscule flakes of gold above the needs of people who rely on clean water, and especially wild salmon, was unconscionable,” opined Leaf Hillman, the tribe’s director of natural resources. And currently Cascadia Wildlands, Rogue Riverkeepers and the Klamath-Siskyou Wildlands Center, all represented by the Western Environmental Law Center, are suing the Forest Service for the same violation on the Rogue, Oregon’s most prolific salmon and steelhead producer.

“Part of the [suction dredgers’] pitch seems to be that mucking up rivers flowing through public lands is an honest-to-goodness, Don’t-Tread-On-Me, all-American right,” submits Cascadia Wildlands director Bob Ferris. “Poppycock . . . . Suction dredging is not a ‘right’ nor is mucking up the water for the rest of us—particularly in streams and rivers that run though public lands or hold imperiled species such as coho and Chinook salmon or bull trout.”


Feeding the flow of what Ferris calls “poppycock” are retired EPA scientists Joe Greene and Claudia Wise, both officers in the mining support group Millennium Diggers and both self-proclaimed experts on the effects of suction dredging. According to Ferris, they don’t initially disclose their passion for dredging or their mining affiliations. He chides the more loquacious Greene for quoting “laughable” conclusions from a nearly 75-year-old water-chemistry study and making public statements that are “deceptive, unprofessional in nature, and politically and personally motivated.”

Nothing I have read by Greene and Wise has led me to disagree with Ferris’s assessment of their credibility. Still, they were the spokespeople the dredgers turned to after the Karuk tribe filed a 2005 complaint in Superior Court of Alameda County against the California Department of Fish and Game, for allowing suction dredgers to damage the habitat of listed fish in the Klamath, Scott and Salmon rivers and specified tributaries.

The tribe had failed in federal court, but the state judge ordered an indefinite moratorium on dredging while Fish and Game undertook environmental review of its permitting system. In 2009 then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law codifying the moratorium and extending it until the department completed an environmental impact report for the whole state. In July 2011 Governor Jerry Brown signed a law creating higher standards for dredging, imposing new fees and setting a 2016 end date for the moratorium. A subsequent law signed by Brown in June 2012 removed the end date and requires Fish and Game to consult with the State Water Resources Control Board, the State Department of Public Health and the Native American Heritage Committee by April 1, 2013.

“I can’t believe that the moratorium down in California has gone on this long,” remarks Waldo Mining District’s Kitchar. “It is costing the state a minimum of $70 million a year—money miners normally would be spending on fuel, food, travel expenses.” No doubt. But what of the money anglers spend pursuing fish that, at least for the moment, are protected from suction dredging? And what of the money hikers and rafters spend enjoying quiet, clear-flowing rivers? Prior to the moratorium, California was issuing about 3,400 dredging permits a year, and it may soon be doing so again, albeit with better safeguards.

The progress hasn’t allayed the fears of groups like California Trout. “We remain concerned about the impacts of suction dredging, even when new and improved regulations are adopted, on specific streams,” it informed Fish and Game in March 2012. “Most notably we are concerned about the impacts of suction dredging on coho salmon streams, designated state Heritage and Wild Trout waters, and popular blue-ribbon trout fisheries. The current state of California’s trout, steelhead and salmon is bad and worsening. Suction dredge mining impacts only exacerbate that declining trend . . . . The diversity of salmonids in California is truly remarkable. Our state is the southern end of the range of all anadromous trout and salmon species. It is also home to many distinctive inland forms of these fish, such as three golden trout subspecies of the southern Sierra Nevada . . . .
The sobering fact is, if present trends continue, 65 percent of California’s salmonids will be gone within the next 100 years, and maybe sooner.”

Meanwhile, the suction dredgers—organized as the Western Mining Alliance, Public Lands for the People and other mining apologist groups—are challenging California’s moratorium and regulations in court. Western Mining Alliance president Craig Lindsay explains that all the concern about suction dredging expressed by the courts, the states, the feds, the Karuk Indians, NGOs, anglers and others is merely “the result of lobbying by several radical environmental groups, which have produced no evidence that suction dredging harms fish or fish habitat.”

And that brings us back to Dr. Moyle’s point that the burden of proof—i.e., producing evidence that suction dredging doesn’t harm fish and fish habitat—should rest with those who practice this form of motorized disruption.



Ted Williams has covered the environment for Fly Rod & Reel for almost three decades.

Sucking Up Riverbeds

Is suction dredging ruining your favorite trout stream?


There are strange things done ’neath the midnight sun

By the men who moil for gold. —Robert Service

A floating, unattended suction dredge on the Salmon River, downstream from Riggins, Idaho

Photograph byjustin hayes, idaho conservation league

A plume of silt belches from a floating suction dredge on the South Fork of the Payette River, in Idaho.

Short-term damage by suction dredgers elicits long-term anxiety.

Photograph by jonathan oppenheimer, idaho conservation league

"Spoil”—as suction dredgers call objects like gravel, woody debris, insect larvae, fish eggs and fish fry—is sucked up from riverbeds and left on banks. Salmon River, downstream from Riggins, Idaho.