Gold miner, environmentalists face off in Oregon

GRANTS PASS — Clifford R. Tracy doesn't fit the Hollywood image of a gold miner.

He is clean shaven and well spoken and only 38 years old.

Last year, he was convicted of illegal mining along Sucker Creek on U.S. Forest Service property in southwest Oregon. He chopped down trees, dug mining pits and diverted a stream without permission.

Now he is applying to mine just downstream on Bureau of Land Management property next to the creek. It also is one of Oregon's top streams for wild coho.

So fishermen, environmentalists and Tracy are getting ready for a showdown between the Gold Mining Law of 1872 and the Endangered Species Act, which was adopted 101 years later.

The debate also spotlights the roles of federal agencies that manage public lands.

Environmentalists and state regulators criticize the Bureau of Land Management for being too lax with miners and for ignoring Tracy's conviction and prior problems on BLM mining projects. Tracy criticizes the Forest Service, saying it dragged out his small-scale project for 13 years. He has appealed his conviction and says he's eager to fight mining restrictions and "asinine" claims of environmental damage.

He says it's his right to mine the BLM site, no matter what regulators say.

"I'm going to be mining there before this year's out," he says. "I guarantee you that."

Gold mining has a storied history in Oregon's southwest and northeast corners — and on Sucker Creek.

In pioneer days, the creek yielded a 15-pound nugget, says Oregon writer, miner and historian Kerby Jackson. In the early 1900s, the Grants Pass Commercial Club described Sucker and nearby Althouse creeks as "one of the richest gold districts on the Pacific Coast."

The gold rush in the early 1900s brought large-scale hydraulic mining, which sprayed high-power water jets at streambanks and hillsides to blast the rock cobble apart and the gold out. It left mounds of rock littering the banks.

Along the upper part of Sucker Creek, there are up to 50 mining claims, almost all on public lands. The miners don't dig in the water, but they cut trees near streambanks, dig potentially leaky mining pits down to bedrock using track-hoe excavators and dump trucks. Then they fill the pits with water diverted from creeks and vacuum through the diggings for gold nuggets.

On his best days, Tracy's says he's netted 10 to 12 ounces. With gold prices at historic highs of more than $1,200 an ounce, some have predicted a modern Oregon gold rush this summer and fall.

Tracy's family moved from California to Oregon when he was 3 years old. He went with his dad on dredge mining trips and started working the heavy equipment himself when he was 20.

"My favorite memories are from when I was young and up prospecting," Tracy says. "It's just in my blood."

Miners and regulators agree the 1872 law gives anyone who stakes a claim a clear right to the minerals on the land. The clash is over how much government can regulate miners' work.

Ron Gibson, vice president of the Southwest Oregon Mining Association, says once Tracy had a valid claim on the Forest Service land, government regulators had no standing to infringe on private property.

Tracy says he's fine with reasonable requirements. He thinks miners can improve conditions by smoothing out the landscape and topping rocks with soil.

"I'm not up there trying to terrorize the land," Tracy says. "I'm trying to do my project and, frankly, make things better than they were."

George Sexton, the 39-year-old conservation director at the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center in Ashland, sees Sucker Creek as a potential linchpin for recovery of threatened wild coastal coho salmon.

Sexton does not agree that Tracy's mining along streams improves the landscape.

On a recent hike to one of Tracy's earlier BLM mines, Sexton points to a large flat swath of rock and cobble left behind. "There's nothing living," he says.

Tracy says the area, a former mine site, had little vegetation before his work began.

"If you're involved in restoration, there are tried-and-true ways of doing it," Sexton says. "None of those involve clear cutting streamside old growth, digging settling ponds in riparian areas, diverting tributaries or bulldozing down to bedrock along streams."

In 1997, Oregon named Sucker Creek as a core area for coho restoration. It's a top priority stream under the Clinton Administration's Northwest Forest Plan. Spotted owl habitat lines its banks.

Environmental laws allow agencies to require miners to use "nondestructive methods" to prevent unreasonable destruction, according to a 1979 appellate court decision.

The same court said mining can't be "so unreasonably circumscribed as to amount to a prohibition."

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