Portland, Oregon – Today the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a new Oregon state law banning motorized mining operations, such as suction dredging, in streams that support runs of wild salmon and steelhead trout.

The court rejected miners’ assertions that the Oregon law is “preempted” by federal laws that allow them to mine on public lands. The court found the Oregon law properly affects only one kind of potentially destructive mining, and bans it in only some streams, so the state law does not unduly infringe on any “right” to mine under federal laws (opinion available here).

“We’re delighted this sensible measure will stay in place to protect and restore wild salmon,” said Pete Frost, attorney for Rogue Riverkeeper, who argued to defend the ban.

Wild salmon and steelhead runs in Oregon have dwindled to a fraction of historic levels. In June, 2017, Oregon Governor Kate Brown signed Senate Bill 3, which states that “mining that uses motorized equipment in the beds and banks of the rivers of Oregon can pose significant risks to Oregon’s natural resources, including fish and other wildlife.” The law bans “motorized mining” in streams that provide “essential salmonid habitat.” Essential salmonid habitat means streams where wild salmon, steelhead trout, and lamprey lay eggs and their young mature. The ban applies to 20,688 miles of streams, or nearly one-fifth of all streams in Oregon (see map).

Motorized mining in streams is often done by suction dredges, where miners use a powerful hose to vacuum the streambed, and separate out any gold. In 2009, 934 miners applied to suction dredge in Oregon. In 2012, 1,941 miners applied to suction dredge. The surge was attributed to a ban on suction dredging adopted by the state of California in April, 2012.

Oregon’s mining ban was championed by state senator Dr. Alan Bates of Ashland. Dr. Bates was a fly fisherman who died in office in 2017 while flyfishing with his son on the Rogue River.

Briefs supporting the ban were filed by the U.S. Department of Interior, the state of Washington, and the state of California. Briefs opposing the ban were filed by the Western Mining Alliance, the Pacific Legal Foundation, and the American Exploration and Mining Association.

Contacts:

Pete Frost, Attorney, Western Environmental Law Center, Eugene, 541-543-0018
Carson Whitehead, Attorney, Oregon Department of Justice, Portland, 503-378-4402