Federal regulations vs. 1872 mining law

A gold miner convicted of illegally mining a site near a salmon stream in Southern Oregon has applied to mine the same site again, saying his right to mine on public lands is guaranteed by a law that helped settle the West — the federal General Mining Act of 1872.

Cliff Tracy, 39, was convicted of a misdemeanor in 2009 after U.S. Forest Service officials said his work at the site alongside Sucker Creek near Cave Junction didn't meet environmental standards, The Oregonian reported Wednesday.

Forest Service officials said Tracy cut down all trees within 25 feet of Sucker Creek, allowed sediment into the creek from a leaking mining pond and built the road and ford below environmental standards. Tracy says he followed normal practices.

Miners and regulators agree the 1872 law gives anyone who stakes a valid claim a clear right to the minerals on the land. The clash is over how much the government can regulate miners' work.

The Forest Service said Tracy's conviction will not be a factor in the evaluation of his new proposal, nor will the $24,000 of taxpayer money spent to reclaim the site.

Tracy has tried since 1996 to mine the 5-acre site. With the price of gold at all-time highs at about $1,500 an ounce, he says the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management can get miners to restore mining sites like the ones that line Sucker Creek.

But conservation groups say it is one of Oregon's top streams for chinook, steelhead, cutthroat trout and wild coastal coho, listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Streamside placer miners dig pits that leak sediment, cut down trees that help shade streams and cross creeks with heavy equipment, said George Sexton, conservation director for the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center.

"It's not right, it's not legal and it's not what Oregonians want to see happen on public lands," Sexton said.

Last week, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management issued a suspension order to Tracy on a different placer mine in southwest Oregon, where he was the operator but not the claim owner.

BLM officials said Tracy began digging with heavy equipment before the Stray Dog mine's operations plan was approved. They ordered him to repair the damage or face fines.

Forest Service officials say Tracy's latest proposal will have to pass environmental reviews, including scrutiny from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fish biologists.

If the agencies continue stalling permits, they risk more miners taking matters into their own hands, Tracy said.

"The cause I'm promoting here is not anarchy," Tracy said. "I have been trying to work with them for 14 years, and I'm still willing to cooperate."

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