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Gold miner Cliff Tracy wants to dig in again on critical salmon stream in southwest Oregon

By Scott Learn
Oregonlive.com

In 2009, Tracy was convicted on a misdemeanor charge of illegally mining on U.S. Forest Service land next to a critical salmon stream in southwest Oregon. Now, he has applied to mine at the same spot again, and the Forest Service says his prior conviction won't factor in to their evaluation of his new proposal.

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Say this for Oregon gold miner Cliff Tracy: He's persistent. 

In 2009, Tracy was convicted on a misdemeanor charge of illegally mining on U.S. Forest Service land next to a critical salmon stream in southwest Oregon. 

Now, he has applied to mine at the same spot again, and the Forest Service says his prior conviction won't factor in to their evaluation of his new proposal. Neither will the $24,000 of taxpayer money spent to reclaim the site, even though Tracy's mining will at least initially undo the work. 

Tracy, 39, has tried since 1996 to mine on the 5-acre site next to Sucker Creek, and says his right to mine on public lands is guaranteed by the law that helped settle the West: the federalGeneral Mining Act of 1872.

With the price of gold at all-time highs, about $1,500 an ounce, Tracy says the Forest Service andBureau of Land Management can get today's miners to restore old-timer mining sites like the ones that line Sucker Creek. If the agencies continue stalling permits, he says, they risk more miners taking matters into their own hands. 

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

Conservation groups have a different take. Sucker Creek 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, says George Sexton, conservation director for theKlamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center. But a growing "radical wing" of southwest Oregon doesn't think environmental laws should apply to them, Sexton says. 

"It's (Tracy's) poke in the eye to be going back to the exact same spot to do the exact same thing," he says. "It's not right, it's not legal and it's not what Oregonians want to see happen on public lands." 

Last week, more evidence surfaced of Tracy's continuing impatience with regulatory reviews: On June 17, the BLM 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 said he 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. But under the agency's rules, reviewers won't consider Tracy's federal court conviction. 

"We're not going to include (the conviction) into our calculation," said Paul Galloway, spokesman for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. "We're going to treat the new proposal as a new proposal and go from there." 

After first applying to mine on his claim in 1996, Tracy reapplied in 2005 and was still waiting on approvals when he decided to proceed without them. 

At the time, Forest Service officials said he 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. 

Tracy spent 13 days in jail after he refused to stop mining the site following his arrest. 

U.S. District Court Judge Owen Panner convicted him of misdemeanor illegal mining in 2009. But he waved Tracy's obligation to pay reclamation costs because Tracy had filed for bankruptcy. The judge also refused the government's request to bar Tracy from mining on all federal lands. 

Tracy's latest mining plan seems to mostly follow the service's buffer zone recommendations. It doesn't include the service's preference for a stringer bridge to reduce damage from stream crossings. Tracy said he wouldn't mind building one, but worries that environmental groups are pushing the idea as "excuse to not allow mining." 

Tracy, raised in nearby Gold Hill, calls his latest proposal a "restorative mining project." About 80 percent of the project area is covered with old mining tailings, he says. Contouring it and covering it with dirt and planting conifer and hardwood saplings after the mining is done will have "a long-term restorative effect," he says. 

In its review of Tracy's 2005 request, the Forest Service said the mining would further degrade the soil, "with recovery to current productivity perhaps taking a century or longer." But it also said the project was too small to have cumulative negative impacts in the greater Sucker Creek watershed. 

Tracy and other miners argue that agencies are effectively prohibiting mining with long delays in approving even small mining proposals. Tracy is also pursuing a similar mining project on nearby BLM lands in Sucker Creek where he has his own claim. That project has yet to receive a yay or nay more than 2 years after he applied. 

In his latest application to the Forest Service, Tracy requested a start-up date "some time before the end of time (or) at my convenience. ASAP!" 

He says the regulators he's dealt with "are all decent, reasonable, smart people." 

"But the problem is they think they can mitigate these projects away," he says. "No matter how you look at it, the red-blooded Americans, the grass roots, don't want to see that." 

In 1999, the National Research Council found "inefficiencies and time delays" in Forest Service reviews and recommended faster review for projects, particularly mines of less than five acres. 

But environmental groups say the agencies allow miners to get away with damaging practices and minimal restoration for fear or running afoul of the 1872 mining act. 

Along the upper part of Sucker Creek, there are up to 50 mining claims, almost all on public lands. KS Wild has sued another nearby miner, alleging Clean Water Act violations. The Forest Service and BLM say there are about a half-dozen permits pending and an unknown number of live mines -- once a miner gets permission, the agencies don't track mines in progress unless there are complaints. 

Environmental laws allow agencies to require miners to prevent unreasonable destruction, according to a 1979 appellate court decision. But the same court said mining can't be "so unreasonably circumscribed as to amount to a prohibition." 

Placer miners don't dig in the water. But they cut trees near stream banks and dig often leaky mining pits down to bedrock using track-hoe excavators and dump trucks. They fill the pits with water diverted from creeks and vacuum through the diggings for gold nuggets and flakes with a suction dredge. 

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 government can regulate miners' work. 

Even if Tracy follows Forest Service recommendations, says Sexton of KS Wild, "at the end of the day he still have beat the hell out of a salmon bearing watershed." 

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