Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 7.23.2009

Gold Dreaming
In search of the ultimate commodity
an Essay by Roy Keene

I know some people living off the grid, way off. I’m not going to say where, only that they go to Reno and sell jewelry-grade nuggets. And that you’d have a hard time telling where they worked rock and earth to liberate the gold.

Not all who mine are corporate, not all are destructive and not all are visible.

A Siskiyou pocket hunter holding a piece of nearly pure “sponge” gold poses for a rare picture taken in 1904. 

Gold and oil, two of our culture’s most valuable goods, are often compared, oil being called “black gold.” They both originate underground and exist in finite, nonrenewable quantities. There is a significant difference: Oil is burned away, but gold abides as does human reliance on it as the ultimate commodity. Our Constitution recognized this, saying “No State shall … make any thing but gold and silver coin a tender in payment of debts.”

Nevertheless, America was taken off the gold standard, and the ownership of gold was nationalized in 1934 when President Roosevelt attempted to save the banks from bad loans being recalled in gold. It is still illegal for private citizens to own gold bullion or coin, excepting for modest amounts held as collectibles.

Gold prices, set by the feds at $35 in 1934, are now approaching $1,000 an ounce in the real world and may rise higher as oil again escalates. Less regulated gold prices and the current depression maybe producing another rush for gold. Oregon’s last gold rushes were during the Great Depression and after World War II, when many returning soldiers, unable to find jobs, went prospecting. The gold they sought began its own rush long before them.

In Earth’s earlier ages, streams of molten quartz flowed in the nether realms. Unattached yet charged, the quartz magma drew gold and other precious metals to itself. Pushed upward by heavier flows underneath, it pulsed through hot fissures, cooling and solidifying as it flowed into the world’s newly forming crust. Richly saturated, the magma rested, waiting for erosion and rain to break out the heavy, durable gold and re-concentrate it. Rain and gravity did their work, and humans discovered and separated the gold from its placers, often following it to the source lodes.

What remains of Oregon’s heaviest worked motherlodes is found in the northeast and southwest areas of the state. Seeking this inner-world treasure will lead you into the roughest and most remote corners of these mineralized regions.

My favorite technique for finding gold, called “sniping,” entails looking for coarse gold flakes and nuggets in freshly exposed bedrock or old placers. A large spoon, stout tweezers, a round file with a hooked end, a gold pan, perhaps a metal detector … these are some of my tools. And, of course, experience and patience. Apart from getting to where the gold is, no fossil fuel required. Equating this to corporate mining would be like comparing cutting firewood with a bucksaw to industrial logging!

Old diggings can be intriguing places to search out. There are amazing piles of rock and metal buried in some really deep places. Depression era miners I’ve met were far more ambitious than myself. They dismantled trucks, tractors or even steam shovels and mills, packed the pieces into the backcountry, reassembled them and mechanized their dreams. One old-timer I knew hauled, by mule, an eight-burner wood stove and a full sized piano onto the crest of a desolate peak to warm his winter nights. Be advised that many old tailings and junk piles are either archeological artifacts or still parts of legitimate mining claims.

Miners occasionally set fire to the forests to expose minerals, a kind of Euro variation on earlier Indian subsistence fire setting. The Biscuit blaze in southwest Oregon, ignited by lightening, accomplished legally what miners were jailed for in the Great Depression: It burned thousands of acres of densely vegetated wilderness, flecked with precious metals, to bare earth. Afterwards it was easy to see mineral contacts and old workings. Gazing over exposed trails and diggings on fire glazed ridges, I found myself wondering, “Did they get everything?”

My partner and I once packed a 16-ft. wall tent and a folding stove into an old dig above an upper reach of the Chetco River. We stayed from spring’s last snows till late fall. We sifted beautiful bits of fine gold out of a dry stream channel, drank pure water, breathed air enriched with forest oxygen, bathed and fished in turquoise pools below and negotiated a truce with pesky bears. Had it not been for a Forest Service flyover, we would have gone undiscovered by humans. When agency people hiked in to evict us, we advised them that we were prospecting under the 1872 mining law. We weren’t bothered again.

The same mining law that lets corporations excavate yawning craters in the earth allows common folks to live on public land while seeking nuggets in bedrock seams. A Forest Service Regional Forester, testifying in favor of a large mining venture, said: “This law confers to a citizen a statutory right to enter upon public lands to search for and develop minerals.” Though this includes noncorporate citizens, there are still efforts by the Forest Service and BLM to remove small gold miners, especially if they’re living on their claims.

During the road building frenzy of the 1970s, folks living in federal forests, often without visible means of support, identification, address or car, were indeed disturbing to the management agencies. Some, like myself, were even more burdensome, resisting new roads and the then wide use of herbicides. The protectorates of our lands ignored the robber barons blasting mainlines through wilderness, leveling mountains and logging off forests. Instead, they went after bands of merry miners who neither contributed nor took tax dollars, paid no rent, did comparatively little damage and occasionally ate the king’s deer.

This ancient lifestyle, one still protected by an equally archaic law, takes on a new glitter in today’s world. Imagine living off the grid, paying no tribute to landlords or money lenders and no taxes. Working each day with simple tools. Living on and with the earth. Staying amazingly fit and healthy. If enough of us little folks exercised this right, could we be stopped by the big corps or resentful bureaucracies?

Years ago I helped Len Ramp, who was then the mineral geologist for Oregon, search out a hidden spring and evaluate some old digs. We lingered, recalling other historic “pockets,” isolated gold concentrations perched above downstream placers. Some had been hand-excavated to yield hundreds of thousands of dollars of gold at $20 to the ounce. We speculated about the hidden crevices yet to be discovered.

Our musings spawned golden dreams that coursed through my consciousness for years, dreams that seem far more realistic in 2009 than they did in


Motorized Mining Mismanaged

“Panning is friendly mining, as far as it goes,” says George Sexton of Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center (KS Wild), “but it’s not the most common form of mining.” In southern Oregon, where KS Wild monitors environmental issues on public lands, Sexton says, “You’ll see more bear than you’ll see miners panning for gold.”

A suction dredge

The more problematic mining that Sexton deals with is a practice called “suction dredging,” which he says is causing harm to fish populations in the rivers of southern Oregon and northern California where gold is found.

In suction dredging, a diver in a wetsuit swims along the riverbed with a large suction hose powered by a gasoline engine that floats on a raft or pontoon. The hose sucks up the sediment from the riverbed and the miners then separate the gold from the other sediments using a sluice box. Larger gold nuggets settle out, but smaller bits of gold must be extracted through other means.

According to the Sierra Fund’s document “Mining’s Toxic Legacy,” suction dredgers often encounter a gold-mercury amalgam in their mining. The suction dredging process not only re-suspends the mercury in the water, some of which was left there as a result of older mining operations, but some miners, after treating the mercury to release the gold, pour the toxin back into the river, onto the ground or into sewage systems. Sexton says other toxic results of mining include arsenic and cyanide.

Suction dredging is practiced in Oregon and California’s Wild and Scenic Rivers and in Wilderness Areas, Sexton says. It damages water quality as well as critical habitat for threatened coho salmon, he says. Opponents to suction dredging point out that low salmon numbers have caused commercial salmon fishing to be stopped on Oregon and California’s coasts, but that recreational suction dredging has been allowed to continue. Miners argue that they are actually removing mercury from the rivers, making them cleaner, and creating, not destroying, salmon habitat.

The 1872 mining law, called the General Mining Act, that allows environmentally-unsound mining practices to continue on public lands “was written in a different era,” Sexton says. “Exploration and exploitation were placed over all other values,” he says, including watershed protection and recreation. “It’s like having an 1872 law that governs the Internet,” he says.

The law allows all U.S. citizens 18 years or older to locate a hard rock “lode” or gravel “placer” mining claim on federal lands open to mineral entry. Sexton says that unlike other industries on public lands — like oil extraction, which is leased, or logging — hard rock mining, including gold mining, does not pay a share of profits (a royalty) to U.S. taxpayers. However, he says, taxpayers “are hit with the cost of the cleanup.”  This year’s stimulus bill gave $1.5 billion for construction and maintenance on public lands, and some of that money will go to cleaning up mines. Last fiscal year the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and the Forest Service spent about $25 million on cleaning up old mines.

Though miners are required to clean up their mines and replace disturbed gravel, “As far as I know there is no compliance monitoring at all,” Sexton says. On his hikes in southern Oregon, he says, “I routinely see suction dredgers violating the conditions of their permits.” However, Sexton adds that environmentalists do see a light at the end of the mining tunnel, and though he calls current mining practices “a free for all,” he says he thinks the General Mining Act will be updated soon. 

Ken Salazar announced on July 14 that the Obama administration is committed to rewriting the act. Mining reform legislation has been introduced in both the House and the Senate. Both versions would set up some sort of royalty structure for hard rock mining on federal lands, and a fund would be set up to pay for cleanup. — Camilla Mortensen




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