SAN FRANCISCO — A federal appeals court ruling Friday makes it tougher for small-time gold miners to work their claims on federal lands across the West.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled in a split decision that the U.S. Forest Service has to consult biologists from other agencies before allowing miners to do anything that might harm salmon protected by the Endangered Species Act. The ruling overturned a District Court decision.
The case was brought by the Karuk Tribe in Northern California as part of a longstanding battle to protect struggling salmon from mining on the Klamath River. The tribe traditionally depended upon the salmon for food.
“The Forest Service’s decision to place the search for minuscule flakes of gold above the needs of people who rely on clean water, and especially wild salmon, was unconscionable,” Leaf Hillman, director of natural resources for the Karuk Tribe, said in a statement.
A mining group said the ruling makes it virtually impossible for people to use suction dredges on rivers through federal lands with protected species. The dredges are gasoline-powered vacuums that suck the gravel from river bottoms and concentrate the gold.
Jerry Hobbs, president of Public Lands for the People in San Bernardino, Calif., said most miners will not be able to afford the high cost of environmental reviews required to get approval. He predicted about 100 miners would go ahead and use their dredges illegally, because state and federal authorities are not likely to enforce any ban.
The ruling comes on top of a moratorium issued by the California Legislature against using suction dredges to mine for gold. The moratorium, which expires in 2016, grew out of another lawsuit brought by the tribe demanding tougher state controls over suction dredges.
The Forest Service had no comment.
The Klamath Tribe’s lawsuit came after a district ranger on the Klamath National Forest in 2004 approved plans by the New 49ers gold mining club and three miners to use dredges to mine for gold.
The appeals court ruled that a low-level approval process known as filing a notice of intent amounted to an agency action covered by the Endangered Species Act. It also found that the mining clearly met the legal hurdle of “might affect” critical habitat for salmon, triggering consultation with biologists for the NOAA Fisheries Service, which oversees protected salmon. The court noted that consultation in some cases could be handled informally, without an extensive review.
A dissenting justice wrote that the mining was already approved by the 1972 Mining Act, and the approval of a notice of intent did not qualify as a separate agency action triggering consultation.