By SARAH REIJONEN
For the GPAA
Small-scale miners in California’s Mother Lode are watching history repeat itself as California State Parks tries to implement a hands-and-pans-only rule along the American River in Auburn, Calif.—again.
“We’ve been through this rodeo before,” said Gold Prospectors Association of America River City Prospectors President Jim Hutchings, adding that the last time the state parks attempted this ban on other prospecting practices within the Auburn State Recreation Area (ASRA), the gold miners crashed the parks’ system because it was so inundated with responses in protest.
The so-called “state park” is actually federally owned—of the 41,000 acres of land, 25,000 are under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Bureau of Land Management oversees the remaining 16,000 acres. In 1992, the Bureau of Reclamation released the Interim Resource Management Plan, which named California State Parks interim managers. The initial plan, which never came to fruition, was drawn up in 1992 as a temporary plan after the construction of the Auburn Dam and Reservoir failed. California State Parks is still at the helm to this day.
“It’s not state owned. The state of California had a contract with BLM to provide management,” Hutchings said. “That land has not been turned over by the federal government. There are other agencies involved in this pact. The state has no authority over the land; they just provide their services.”
However, in a letter addressed to Steven Lehr and other concerned prospectors on Aug. 25, ASRA Gold Fields District Superintendent Jason De Wall stated: “State laws concerning natural resource protection shall govern, unless there is a federal law that preempts the state law.”
De Wall also cited 43 CFR 423.29, which prohibits destruction of Reclamation facilities, lands and waterbodies, and noted that California State Parks representatives had “observed destruction of natural resources and/or near river banks due to various gold panning activities.”
“We just looked at current laws and looking into it from within our current legal department ... and from their standpoint and mine, we haven’t been following that. In certain aspects we’ve been out of compliance,” said Auburn State Recreation Area Sector Superintendent Mike Schneider.
What is out of compliance, said Schneider, is digging of any sort; hence, the order of hands and pans only.
“Basically, creating any resource damage, whether digging or any kind of movement of earth, soils,” Schneider said. “Just to do a project in the park, from our standpoint, you have to do a lot of things—sign off on a lot of different things to get approval.”
Although Hutchings said he believes in and is dedicated to stewardship of the land, one only need to visit the American River during a flood year to see that Mother Nature is the biggest culprit of destruction.
“Most of these people have not been involved in the Auburn State Recreation Area that long. They think it’s this ecological wonderland of delicate wildlife, but we’ve got the pictures of 80, 90 feet of water coming through, chocolate brown, stripping the walls and tearing up the bar,” Hutchings said. “There is nothing an army of dredgers, power sluicers or a guy throwing a hand sluice in the river can possibly do to move the mud, sediment and debris that normal high water does each winter, and especially during these massive, Pineapple-Express driven floods that move boulders and rip trees off the side of the canyon walls.”
(According to Wikipedia, a Pineapple Express “is a a non-technical term for a meteorological phenomenon characterized by a strong and persistent flow of atmospheric moisture and associated with heavy precipitation from the waters adjacent to the Hawaiian Islands and extending to any location along the Pacific coast of North America.”)
Ultimately, California State Parks is twisting recent small-scale mining legislation and bending it to fit its own ideologies, said Heather Willis, manager and co-owner of Pioneer Mining Supplies Manger in Auburn, Calif. Willis, whose father Frank Sullivan opened the shop more than 30 years ago.
Willis said she met with Schneider back in July to show him the mining equipment she sells in her shop and point out the overreach of the state parks.
“I had a nice meeting with Mr. Schneider for State Parks, and he agreed with me that there’s been no law passed that would have anything to do with sluice-boxing and all of that,” Willis said. “All of these new laws that have been passed are only pertaining to the actual use of motorized equipment for water quality. They’re turning around and using this to try and regulate that you can’t use Hookah systems, which have nothing to do with moving the water.”
Vac Pacs are also raising concern, Willis said.
“There is no law that has been passed that gives them the right to start regulating against the use of vacuum cleaners to suck up material from the cracks up on the shoreline,” Willis said. “They’ll all agree that there’s a rule in place that you cannot use motorized equipment. There is no federal law that says you cannot use a shovel.”
No, a shovel is not against the law—it’s just the act of using it to stab the ground that could get prospectors in trouble, according to Schneider.
“A shovel is not against the law, it’s not, you’re right—it’s just the resource damage that’s against the law, but I mean, if it’s a large hole that’s not supposed to be where it’s been, if it’s actual bedrock being disturbed, that’s what we need to avoid,” Schneider said.
Still, Willis said that prospectors are being chased out of popular recreation area.
“Mike Schneider agreed with us and the interpretation of law, and he even agreed that the Vac Pacs and air were out of their enforcement. And, he agreed that the rangers needed to be informed. And, he agreed that most of the stuff I sell in my shop is not illegal to use on the river. And then, he proceeds to turn around and continue to enforce,” Willis said.
Schneider said it will take time to train his staff on which prospecting-related tools are “in compliance” and which are not.
“Part of it’s going to have to be educating from our end and our staff, what’s good and what’s not, what this equipment really is, because going there, I learned a lot and still could learn a lot,” said Schneider, who also said he has done very little, if any, prospecting of his own. “We’re not going to be out there with pens and pencils and citations, taking everybody to court on it. That’s not how it’s gonna come from our standpoint either. We’re not gonna be like that with this.”
Not only does this threaten prospectors testing new ground, but it also threatens claim holders along the American River, Willis said.
“With that, they’re also trying to pass laws against the actual miners that are up in here on federal mining claims, too, because if it sticks, that’s giving them the right to oversee federal claims, as well. State parks should not have that right,” Willis said.
“Even if there are mining claims on ASRA federal lands, CSP may enforce its environmental regulations on those lands to the extent that they do not impose an outright ban on mineral mining,” De Wall wrote in his August letter to miners.
“Our concern is the major mining operations that are illegal and create huge resource damages. They dig big holes and they’re out there, so that’s where this came from,” Schneider said. “This is really more targeted toward that, more so than the individual guy who’s going out there and hiking in with a pan and maybe some small hand tools.”
Ultimately, Schneider said he has no beef with the miners.
“I know, like, things like this come across as like, you know, I’m anti-miner or anti-prospector, and I’m not. I really value the history of it and I do respect, you know, that guy that’s out there recreationally, you know, being a good steward and panning. I like seeing that,” Schneider said.
Rinehart decision creates knee-jerk reaction at ASRA
As Hutchings said, the small-scale miners in this neck of the northern Mother Lode have ridden this bucking bronco before—and stayed on for all eight seconds. In fact, they’ve stayed on for the last two decades, Willis said.
After California State Parks tried to implement pans and hands only in 2010 and received an overwhelming response from the mining community, then-Sector Superintendent Mike Lynch sent Hutchings and fellow miners a letter rescinding the agency’s order (Superintendent’s Order No. 690-006-2010
, dated March 29, 2010
). Not only did he withdraw the order for hands and pans only, but Lynch also stated that the order was created to comply with Senate Bill 670, which banned suction dredging. Just as the order released in 2010 was a knee-jerk reaction to SB 670, this most recent ban on motorized tools is a reaction to the California Supreme Court decision on the People v. Rinehart
case handed down on Aug. 22
, Willis said.
In addition to taking back the superintendent’s order, Lynch stated that “if changes to the recreational mining policy within Auburn SRA are to be considered in the future, park staff will be reaching out to stakeholders and interested parties to seek input regarding recreational mineral collection within the park with the goal of producing an order that will be more acceptable to the recreating public while still complying with the law and sound environment practices.”
“You clarify it and get guarantees from the current people in the park that this is not gonna happen again, then the next officer comes in and we have to start all over again,” Willis said.
Lynch also corresponded with Mother Lode Goldhounds President Don Robinson at the time, stating: “At Auburn SRA, we would revert back to our previous practices and rules regarding mineral collection which allowed rockhounding, gold panning, the use of sluice boxes, power sluicing, the use of non-motorized small tools (for example shovels, pics [sic], and hand trowels) and the use of metal detectors, all as specified.”
Aside from lack of communication between the agency and prospectors, Willis said a new interim management plan has still not been drawn up.
“The last meeting was in 2015, in which I attended, and they asked for input on what we would like to see as continued use in the park,” Willis said. “Ironically enough, there were more gold miners in that meeting than any other group.”
According to the ASRA website, California State Parks is collaborating with the Bureau of Reclamation to draw up a General Plan/Resource Management Plan for the recreation area.
When asked whether California State Parks had done any environmental studies in the past to determine whether prospecting was harmful to the environment, Schneider said, “No, not specifically. No, not right now, we haven’t,” and “I don’t have any plans in the near future.”
The eventual Resource Management Plan will include an Environmental Impact Report/Statement (EIR/EIS), according to the website. A scoping workshop is scheduled for this fall to “adequately analyze the significant amount of data and public input received in the past year.”
“It might touch on that topic of prospecting and mining,” Schneider said.
Schneider said he invites comments from the public and mining community, though the upcoming meeting will be for local agencies and elected officials only, he said.
“We’re going to have an agency meeting that includes all the agencies, so like the counties, local elected, to give them alternatives to some of these things, some of these topics,” Schneider said. “I’m sure the constituents will tell them what they wanted so they can bring it to us so we can have more information on some of these topics.”
While the lines are blurred on whether the state or federal government should take the lead in this complicated issue, Willis said that agencies hired to be public servants should do just that—serve the public interests.
“They can feel however they want, but the communities that they’re representing do not want them to enforce this,” Willis said.
Let your voice be heard
Auburn State Recreation Area
Voice your concerns about prospecting within the Auburn State Recreation Area.
If you would like to be added to the mailing list to receive notification of future workshops and planning updates, contact Project Lead Cheryl Essex by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
or call her at (916) 445-8814
CONTACT LOCAL LEGISLATORS:
Congressman Tom McClintock