By Courtney Sherwood
PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) - A consortium of gold miners has sued Oregon to overturn new rules barring motorized devices in waterways used by migrating salmon, while environmental groups say those rules are key to protecting threatened fish.
The miners argue in documents filed on Monday with the U.S. District Court in Medford that Oregon's ban on using such machines during in-stream mining of precious metals violates federal laws that have guaranteed mining access on U.S. lands since the 1870s.
Several independent miners and small companies were listed as plaintiffs, including prospector Joshua Caleb Bohmker and Millennium Diggers, and mining equipment manufacturer J.O.G. Mining LLC.
"Can the state regulate mining? Yes, on state land and state-controlled waters, but not on federal land," said Tom Kitchar, president of Waldo Mining District, an organization that is helping to fund the lawsuit but is not a plaintiff.
The new rules follow years of wrangling over the practice known as suction dredge mining, which uses pumps to suck up river bottom stones and rocks, in a region with deep economic and cultural ties to both gold prospecting and migratory salmon.
Oregon's attorney general did not respond to a request to comment.
Environmental groups contend that the restrictions on motorized devices are key to statewide efforts to comply with the U.S. Endangered Species Act. They say the practice disturbs river bottom spawning grounds for salmon that have been designated as "threatened" or "endangered" under federal law.
"We're spending millions of dollars to restore these incredible river systems, only to watch them being vacuumed up, essentially, by miners," said Josh Laughlin, executive director of Cascadia Wildlands, a conservation group.
Cascadia is considering joining the state against the suit.
"The science is pretty clear that when you're suction dredge mining, you're disturbing the integrity of spawning gravels," Laughlin said. "This impacts the early life cycle of salmon."
Waldo Mining District's Kitchar argues that environmental groups are promoting rigid restrictions based on incomplete scientific research, and that the ban on motorized devices impacts equipment other than suction dredge gear. He also says the new regulations reflect ignorance about mining practices dating back to the 1850s, when people drawn to California for the 1848 gold rush turned their attention north toward Oregon.
(Reporting by Courtney Sherwood in Portland Editing by Eric M. Johnson and Eric Walsh)