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Supreme Court Lets Limits On River Mining Stand

Tom Banse

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling Monday makes it harder for miners to gain access to Northwest rivers. Environmental groups hailed the decision as a major victory.

Over the past decade miners have set up shop in mountain rivers across the Northwest. They're looking for gold using a technique known as suction-dredge mining. Miners use a vacuum to suck up riverbed material and then sift through the muck for the precious rocks. The U.S. Forest Service had been granting permits to miners on federal forest land. But environmental groups objected. They said the process harms endangered salmon by stirring up sediment.

A tribe sued the Forest Service, alleging the agency was granting mining permits too easily. A federal court in California ruled in the tribe's favor, saying the Endangered Species Act trumps mining rights. Now, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld that ruling.

Separately, there's a measure in the Oregon legislature this year that would further restrict suction dredge mining on state waterways. Opponents have said existing limits on the practice are adequate to protect fish.