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Bill to Protect the McKenzie

The McKenzie River, the source of Eugene’s drinking water, would be protected from destructive suction-dredge mining and other threats if a bill introduced to the Oregon Legislature this week is passed. The bill, which adds rivers and tributaries to Oregon’s Scenic Waterways System, would also protect rivers such as the Chetco, Rogue and Illinois, among others.

Josh Laughlin of Cascadia Wildlands likens suction-dredge mining, a way of mining gold from rivers, to “vacuuming up the river bottom” and says while millions of dollars are being spent on habitat restoration and salmon protection, the mining is destroying that habitat.

Frank Armendariz of Eugene-based River Trail Outfitters says SB 401, introduced by State Sen. Alan Bates, would protect the water and fish, as well as the businesses that depend on rivers. “I’m a river guide; a lot of what our business does is fish and raft on the McKenzie.”

There is currently a moratorium on suction-dredge mining in California, and as a result, Laughlin says, more mining is coming to Oregon’s rivers and their native salmon runs. Though at this point the mining impacts have been felt more strongly in southern Oregon, Armendariz says there have been mining applications on Quartz Creek, a tributary of the McKenzie River.

Portions of the McKenzie are already protected as an Oregon Scenic Waterway, but Armendariz says SB 401 would protect the lower McKenzie, its water and its summer steelhead, endangered spring Chinook salmon, endangered bull trout, rainbow trout and cutthroat trout.

Scenic waterways protection means that the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department must be notified of activities proposed within a quarter mile of the bank such as cutting trees, mining and constructing roads, railroads, utilities, buildings or other structures. 

The scenic waterways system was created by a citizens’ initiative in 1970 and was last updated in 1988.

Both public and private lands fall into the area proposed for protection that ends just above Finn Rock, and Armendariz explains, “This isn’t a land grab; this is an opportunity to form a collaboration between folks that are good stewards of the land already; it protects waterways adjacent to their property. Landowners have control.” 

Armendariz says the bill will protect rivers that are “national treasures,” and adds, “I see it as a win-win all the way around.”