GOLD HILL, Ore. (AP) — After California shut down gold mining with suction dredges, Dave McCracken loaded his gear and drove over the Siskiyou Mountains to Southern Oregon, where he is building up his retirement fund with flecks of gold gleaned from the gravels of the Rogue River.
He is part of a mini gold rush going on this summer that appears to be the result of the high price of gold, the poor economy, and California's year-old moratorium on using gasoline-powered dredges to mine for gold while it figures out whether it is bad for salmon.
"It's very hard work," said McCracken, a former Navy SEAL and founder of the New 49ers gold mining club in Happy Camp, Calif. "But the stuff is so valuable right now. An ounce a day and I'm doing good on my retirement plan."
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality reports it issued 1,205 dredging permits this year, up 30 percent from 934 last year. The number of Californians went from 51 in 2009 to 85 this year, up 67 percent.
"I think we have a little gold rush going on," said Jim Billings, a compliance specialist in DEQ's water quality division. "I get calls from all around the country. A lot of people who would have vacationed in Northern California to suction dredge have called me to ask about what requirements are to suction dredge in Oregon, because they're going to move their vacation to Oregon."
Grants Pass miner Mike Higbee said he would have figured the numbers would be higher.
"You're looking at gold at $1,200 an ounce," said Higbee. "That in itself is going to get more people excited and looking. Then, with the current moratorium in California — California has always been sort of a gold mining destination for dredgers — that operation's off the table at this point. It would only make sense there would be some increase."
The creeks and rivers in Southwestern Oregon have been mined three times over: first by miners overflowing the California gold fields in the 1850s, then by Chinese immigrants who worked over the tailings, and again in the Great Depression by people scratching out a living. The numbers typically go up and down with the price of gold.
Oregon has not been welcoming to the idea of a new gold rush. New rules from DEQ regulate suction dredging.
The action stems from a court challenge from both miners and conservationists to the old rule.
Members of Oregon's Congressional delegation have asked the Obama administration to formally withdraw some rivers on federal lands in southwestern Oregon from new mining claims and work on claims that have not proven profitable. The rivers are in an area conservation groups have long wanted to protect for its unusual diversity of plant life and prime salmon habitat.
About 25 miners have been regularly working a stretch of river downstream of Gold Ray Dam and upstream of Nugget Falls near the town of Gold Hill, said McCracken.
It is open river, controlled by the Division of State Lands, which requires a free placer mining permit. Unlike federal lands, miners here can't file a claim. But they can run their dredges during the summer mining season, scheduled to keep miners out of the river when salmon and steelhead are spawning.
"There are some guys out there doing it for the money," he said. "And there are guys doing it for something to do. Everybody wants as much as they can get. That's the nature of gold."
The California moratorium has turned Happy Camp into a ghost town, said McCracken. Campgrounds normally overflowing with recreational miners this time of year are practically empty. His gold mining equipment shop is selling a few gold pans, picks, buckets and tubs, but none of the dredges that go for between $1,000 and $6,000.
McCracken figures it will be 2012 before California decides what to do about dredging. Until then, he will be spending his summers on the Rogue, immersed in the river running a 4-inch hose over the bottom and going over the spoils with his gold pan.
"It does not come free," he said. "The guys doing it see me coming out with all that gold scratch their heads and can't figure it out. It's 30 years of practice. A lot of these guys are on their first year. You have to know what you're looking for."
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.