No Matter How You Sluice It, Feisty Gold Miner Fights for Vein : Environment: Oregonian tries to figure out how to work without discharging mud into the Rogue River.
For 16 years, Geoff Garcia mined the ancient riverbed that holds the gold on his Last Chance claim.
But now his trusty old bulldozer, nicknamed Cable Mabel, sits idle until he figures out how to mine without getting the state Department of Environmental Quality on his case again for sluicing mud into the Rogue River.
He was fined $5,045 last December after misdemeanor convictions for discharging muddy water without a permit and degrading state waters.
“Nobody’s going out mining anymore,” lamented Garcia. “It’s a big gamble to begin with. Is the gold there? Is the price going to be right? Is the equipment going to fall apart? Then you add that somebody might drive up and say, ‘You can’t mine anymore.’ ”
Mining has always been an adventure for Garcia. After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley in 1974 with a geology degree, he labored 5,000 feet underground in an Idaho silver mine and tramped the creeks of the Brooks Range in Alaska as a field geologist.
His wife, Charlotte, is a geologist as well, and they named their three youngsters for minerals: Crystal, Emery and Amber.
Garcia moved to Galice in 1977 to mine in the winters between summer field seasons in Alaska. In those days his neighbors were a free-spirited bunch, living in tree houses and cabins on old mining claims. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, ran them out as squatters.
As a miner living in a cabin on his claim, Garcia is part of the self-reliant tradition that helped settle the West. But now he figures people like their gold miners safely in the past.
He expects to be thrown off his claim, if he can’t resume mining.
Jim Dodson, president of the Rogue Valley Mining Council, said it’s still possible for a small-time gold miner to make money, but it’s a tougher game than the old sourdoughs knew.
BLM has culled 60% of the 42,000 mining claims on federal land in Oregon and has stopped granting patents--outright ownership of moneymaking claims--pending reform of the 1872 Mining Act.
BLM was worried that requirements that claim holders do $100 a year of assessment work often just caused environmental damage and didn’t lead to any real minerals development, said Pat Geehan, deputy state BLM director for mineral resources.
Oregon has toughened its regulations on the new heap-leach process where cyanide trickles through piles of low-grade ore to draw out gold that could never be mined by the 49ers.
Fisheries biologists concerned over dwindling runs of salmon also watch miners more closely.
‘I’m supposed to get a storm-water permit,” said Garcia. “That’s $300 just to have rain fall on the mine. The difference between mine tailings and a plowed field is you have to pay the government $300 for rain to fall on mine tailings.”
Southwestern Oregon is Gold Country. Galice, a wide spot in the road outside Grants Pass, is best known for whitewater rafting--but it’s named for a French doctor who struck gold in 1852.
Garcia’s Last Chance Mine dates to 1912. His gold is mixed with sand and gravel in an ancient riverbed that went dry long ago. He washed the gold out of the gravel by running creek water over it in a sluice box. The gold stayed behind; the sand, gravel and clay went down the creek.
Along the road to Garcia’s cabin sits a rusty old hydraulic cannon called a giant, a relic of the old days when miners hosed down whole hillsides.
Historically, placer mining accounted for 35% of the gold in the country, according to the U.S. Bureau of Mines. Now it’s only 1%, since new techniques for mining low-grade ores boosted U.S. production to 23 million ounces in 1992.
For years, Garcia got along by waiting for winter rains to swell the Rogue with muddy runoff, so that his work would just blend in with what was happening naturally. He played cat-and-mouse with fish and wildlife biologists eager to bust him.
A 1938 report by a fish biologist for the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries on placer mining on the Rogue convinced him that he was doing no harm. Commissioned in the midst of a dispute between fishermen and miners, the report concluded that placer mining didn’t hurt the fish any more than natural sedimentation.
But in 1985, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality took over regulating water quality on the river. Garcia could no longer do anything that would raise sedimentation in Rocky Gulch Creek by more than 10%. Last April he got busted.
Ed Sale, spokesman for the Department of Environmental Quality, said Garcia was treated like anyone else.
But it galled Garcia that the city of Ashland, for example, can get a variance to sluice out tons of sedimentation from its drinking water reservoir into Ashland Creek every few years.
“Society seems to have this guilt about disturbing the land,” said Garcia. “They still go to their big parking lots and supermarkets, but if they have a chance to get rid of their guilt and nail some little miner on the hill, they feel like they’ve done their part to save the world.”