California is what it is – a diverse and economically and culturally potent society – largely because gold was discovered in the American River in 1848.
It drew thousands from every corner of the globe, establishing it as a magnet for those with ambition and drive that is still powerful.
It jump-started an innovative and diverse economy, led to our very rapid – perhaps premature – admission as a state, and sparked construction of the transcontinental railroad that gave cohesion to the still-young nation.
A personal note: One 49er was my cousin, Hugh Glenn, who left behind his St. Louis medical practice and eventually became the “wheat king” of California and the 1880 Democratic candidate for governor. Glenn County carries his name.
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Gold is, of course, no longer even a minor factor in California’s economy. But for decades, the 49er spirit has survived in a few thousand semi-professional hobbyists who have used small suction dredges to gather gold-bearing gravel from streams.
After years of political and legal sparring, however, these weekend miners are being suppressed by new legislation, enacted at the behest of the Sierra Fund and other environmental groups that contend dredging stirs up pockets of toxic mercury left by gold extraction many decades ago.
The miners say what they do is an infinitesimal fraction of what water flows do naturally and that they actually remove mercury from the streams.
The Reno-based Western Mining Alliance had been fairly successful in judicial challenges to previous efforts to impose a moratorium on suction dredging, contending that federal law allowing it pre-empted state action. However, the state won the right to regulate dredging, if not ban it outright.
Senate Bill 637, carried by Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, shifts that power to the State Water Resources Control Board, which has quickly notified dredgers that they cannot operate without a series of permits that everyone agrees will be impossible to obtain.
SB 637 will “kill off an entire recreational activity,” Assemblyman Frank Bigelow, R-O’Neals, complained on the Assembly floor before its 44-24 passage, calling it “an assault on the lifestyle of rural Californians.”
“I don’t know what our next step will be,” says Craig Lindsey, who heads the miners’ alliance, adding that it lacks the financial wherewithal to pursue more litigation.
The Nevada City-based Sierra Fund, meanwhile, is jubilant, calling the bill “a great victory for all of us concerned about clean water and healthy fisheries.”
Ironically, however, the Sierra Fund may become a gold miner itself. It is “exploring the marketing potential of metals obtained in the restoration of the environment, in an effort to recapture the costs of remediation, and fund future restoration projects.”
The newly displaced suction dredgers claim that the Sierra Fund’s sponsorship of SB 637 was merely eliminating its competition – a charge that the group rejects.