The Idaho Conservation League won a small victory this month when Grangeville gold miner Mike Conklin decided to withdraw his application to dredge a section the Salmon River 13 miles downstream from Riggins.
The ICL sued prior to Conklin’s decision, which he said he made because the permit had too many restrictions. So he gave up the exclusivity of a permit and can join the hobby dredgers who add to their income by seeking gold in the gravel of the river bottom in that stretch.
The ICL is hoping the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is going to step in and begin regulation of dredge mining in Idaho rivers, which it expects will all but end it in sensitive habitat areas like the Salmon River. It likely has the public on its side because if you simply ask people: “Should dredge mining be allowed on the Salmon River?” you won’t get a lot of people answering yes.
In the middle of the controversy, Linda Dennis of Riggins contacted me to share a letter her son Gary wrote. The former guide and current gold miner was responded to a letter from a critic of the dredge mining but Linda thought it was a point of view that was missing from my blogs on the issue.
“I think it's important to remember that the only section of the Salmon River to be open to recreational dredging is from Long Tom Bar to Hammer Creek… the section that runs through Riggins and follows Highway 95 to the north.” He wrote. “It is a beautiful section of river with great whitewater rafting, fishing, and camping. However, calling it "pristine" is a bit of a stretch. It's not the Middle Fork, Main, or even the Lower Salmon.”
Gary acknowledges he moves rocks and sand as he runs his gasoline powered suction dredge. But “the high-water will be back next year and everything will move around a little more.”
“I have pulled a fair amount of precious metal out of my sluice,” Dennis wrote. “Unfortunately, all of it has been lead from fishermen who have yet to reclaim it.”
Dredgers also remove mercury left in the rivers from old miners along with “tires, wheels, chunks of pipe, gears, fencing, aluminum cans, sunglasses, and hopefully a little gold.”
Dennis remembers that when he was guiding jet boat tours in Hell's Canyon he would sometimes get irritated because he had to stop constantly for rafting groups in rapids. And when he was rafting he was “astounded by the never ending parade of jet boaters,” he said. Then there are the big trips of out-of-towners that crowd the ramps.
“But, hey, it brings money to town and gives work to a bunch of summertime residents, so I live and let live, and accept that we all have a right to enjoy different things,” he said. “I totally agree with the need for regulation on our public lands to preserve what we all love.
“Let's just have a little perspective that is based on fact,” Dennis wrote.
I suspect we will hear many more facts before this controversy is over. Timing of the disturbance is one issue since salmon and steelhead spawn in that section of river.
And Conklin was worried that he was being over-regulated by the state that was facing a lawsuit from environmentalists for not doing enough to protect the Salmon. Those are facts that present a different perspective, which suggests this issue won’t go away.