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Originally published Monday, November 24, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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New rules striking a nerve with gold miners

To protect fish and fish eggs during critical spawning periods, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife is limiting the time when miners can dig or dredge for gold in certain creeks, streams and rivers using motorized equipment, including suction dredges that resemble shop vacs.

The Associated Press

LIBERTY, Kittitas County — Ed Levesque heads into the Wenatchee Mountains every weekend with the same fever that lured his forebears here during the gold rush of the 1870s.

"There's lots of gold in this creek," said the 63-year-old miner. "In the old days, you could come up here and dredge to your heart's content."

But these days, the quest that beckoned people West more than a century ago is running headlong into a more recent Western goal: the survival of fish.

To protect fish and fish eggs during critical spawning periods, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife is limiting the time when miners can dig or dredge for gold in certain creeks, streams and rivers using motorized equipment, including suction dredges that resemble shop vacs.

Fish and wildlife officials say dredging in spawning areas can disrupt stream bottoms, disturb sediment and harm habitat for fish already on the brink of extinction, such as bull trout and chinook salmon.

But many of the state's 2,000 small-scale prospectors view the new rules as another assault on their rights under the General Mining Law of 1872 to explore public lands for minerals.

"They keep coming down on miners' rights," said Levesque, who has been prospecting for 30 years and recently established a mining claim near Blewett Pass.

Over the years, lawmakers and environmentalists have tried but failed to rewrite parts of the federal mining law they view as a relic of frontier America.

In Washington two years ago, small-scale mineral prospectors went to the state to ask for better rules and work times than they got the last time regulations were revised in 1999.

While miners got more liberal rules for panning and mining using nonmotorized tools, fish and wildlife officials restricted or pushed into winter months periods when they could dig or dredge for gold and other minerals.

"We're most concerned about eggs in the gravel. A shovel and dredge will kill eggs," said Greg Hueckel, the agency's director for habitat programs. "They can still [dredge] but not during the times when fish eggs are there."

Suction dredging

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At the heart of the debate is suction dredging. Prospectors essentially use an underwater vacuum cleaner to suck up streambed material such as rocks and gravel. Heavy gold pieces are sorted out, and material is returned to the river.

Levesque and others say they don't kill fish eggs and that no studies show suction dredging to be harmful to fish habitat.

Weighing in on the rules, the National Marine Fisheries Service said the new rules would reduce the potential for "take" of endangered species, said Gail Kreitman, a fisheries biologist for the agency.

The friction between miners and fish advocates is playing out in other parts of the West as the fate of endangered salmon and other fish species has increased conservation efforts.

In Oregon, an environmental group called the Siskiyou Project has sued the U.S. Forest Service for allowing suction dredgers to dig up spawning areas used by endangered coho salmon.

In California, fishermen and tribal members have pushed, without success, for a temporary moratorium on suction dredging to protect threatened fish such as coho salmon.

"We should have access year-round because I own the minerals and I have a contract with the government to process those minerals," said Bruce Beatty, with the Washington Miners Council, citing his rights under the 1872 law.

Hueckel said that claim doesn't usurp environmental laws.

The rules were developed by local, state, tribal and federal fish biologists using updated science to more accurately determine when fry will emerge from the gravel, Hueckel said.

The state closed some areas, like the Skagit River, to dredging. Miners who want to prospect there must get individual reviews. It took away some weeks during summer spawning periods on other waters.

In some cases, miners actually got more time during fall and winter months — times they say remote creeks are too snowed in to work.

Digging for gold

When Levesque isn't selling auto parts in Tacoma, he shifts for gold specks near the old mining town of Liberty, about 100 miles from Seattle.

Gold was discovered in Swauk Creek in 1873, prompting a gold rush and the formation of a mining district.

Decades later, prospectors like Levesque still work the creeks and ancient riverbeds in search of tiny gold specks, nuggets and rare crystalline wire gold.

"This is one of the richest areas of the state," said Levesque, who dredges Swauk Creek six weeks during the summer and works a nearby mining claim the rest of the year.

He and other miners say the holes they dig fill up with cool water, providing water for fish and other animals during low water levels.

While the new rules give miners more time on this particular creek, Levesque said the state slowly has chipped away at mining rights over the past couple of decades.

"There probably won't be any peace between dredgers and Fish and Game," he said.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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