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State weighs season changes for SF Clearwater gold miners

An American Mining Rights Association-affiliated suction dredge operator pauses while clearing an obstruction from the sluice on a dredge.

Photo by Andrew Ottoson
An American Mining Rights Association-affiliated suction dredge operator pauses while clearing an obstruction from the sluice on a dredge.

— About two dozen – mostly suction dredge miners – gathered for an Idaho Department of Water Resources public comment hearing about suction dredging regulations Wednesday evening, June 21.

Miner Ron Miller of Clearwater, who is chairman of the recently revived Tenmile Mining District, later that evening told the Free Press he liked what he heard.

“I think it was a success,” he said. “This is one of the few times that the miners actually got together and worked with the agencies to make it actually more streamlined, easier for the agencies and the miners. … They’re finally listening and maybe thinking instead of overregulating, maybe they’ve got too much here.”

Earlier on June 21, Idaho Water Resource Board chairman Roger Chase drove from Pocatello to Boise and rode along with IDWR deputy director Mat Weaver in order to host the hearing at the Grangeville Super 8 Motel, along with IDWR stream channel specialist Aaron Golart.

Because time was – and is – of the essence.

The South Fork Clearwater River suction dredging season is scheduled to open July 15 and applications for the permit IDWR required from miners were due June 26. And Miller’s organization had asked Chase’s for sweeping changes to the way suction dredging would be governed under the permit IDWR prepared for 2017.

“As you are aware, we are of the opinion that the vested rights of miners in organized mining districts exempt them from the conditions, or policies, of the state water plans under Idaho’s constitution and statutes as well as federal statutes,” Tenmile Mining District vice-secretary David Hembree wrote in a June 5 letter to Chase, which was carbon-copied to Weaver and 13 others, including Idaho County Commissioner Skip Brandt, state representatives Paul Shepherd and Priscilla Giddings, state senator Carl Crabtree and Idaho County Sheriff Doug Giddings. (Of the local elected officials who were copied, only Shepherd attended the June 21 hearing. A proxy for U.S. Senator Mike Crapo was present.)

Dredging regs tied to 2004 water plan

Throughout the hearing, the state water officials referred to the 2004 South Fork Clearwater River basin plan, which was approved by the state legislature in 2005. In the basin plan executive summary, the Idaho Water Resource Board (IWRB) cited restrictions imposed under the Clean Water Act, the Stream Channel Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act and wrote: “It is unlikely that a new recreational dredging operation could be conducted in the South Fork Clearwater River without adequate review and environmental safeguards. Therefore, the IWRB does not recommend changing the current recreational dredge mining permit/regulation process.”

Suction dredging is listed first among the issues the basin plan details, ahead even of potentially declining ground water levels near Grangeville and in the Camas Prairie.

The Tenmile Mining District miners, claiming legal status under federal laws that date back to the 1866 and 1872, had also sent the water board what they presented to the state agency as rules of their own for suction dredging in the South Fork Clearwater River and all of its tributaries.

“We propose that to expedite this year’s operation that you use your authority granted under Idaho Code…to approve the general operation supplement we have proposed,” Hembree wrote.

To the June 21 hearing, Chase, Weaver and Golart brought a table describing changes the department may make to the IDWR’s South Fork Clearwater River Special Supplement permit. The table identifies 16 provisions the department may change before the 2017 season begins, as well as eight the department may change later, and five the department will not change.

Via telephone, Idaho Conservation League’s Jonathan Oppenheimer, accurately pointed out that on some points, IDWR’s table states the department is “considering adopting the proposed TMD [Tenmile Mining District] language.”

The South Fork Clearwater River basin plan is downloadable at

Miner: proposed changes are cosmetic

Last Friday, June 23, Don Smith of Riggins, a miner affiliated with Minerals and Mining Advisory Council who spoke at the June 21 hearing, told the Free Press he thinks the changes IDWR has outlined are mostly cosmetic.

“The biggest change I can see is simply the willingness, I suppose, for IDWR to contemplate changing things because of the consideration of the mining district,” Smith said. “Certainly at this late stage of the game, I can’t see where they would have had…the desire to make major changes. Because they are going to run into the concern where it’s really close to putting this permit out and having people using it.”

Among the five points the table lists as “no change” is the requirement that miners obtain an IDWR suction dredge ID card specific to the South Fork Clearwater River, which “shall be attached to the dredge in a visible location at all times the dredge is located on the [river].”

Also not up for change: IDWR may cancel the permit at any time “to minimize adverse impact on the stream channel.”

To get carded as a South Fork Suction Dredge miner, the department presently requires a person to complete paperwork such as providing maps, diagrams, fees and signatures. IDWR also requires a site inspection by a state or federal fisheries biologist, as well as a meeting with the miner during or after the inspection.

The state permit instructions state that the first 15 miners to fulfill the requirements will be authorized to operate. (A Forest Service study that led to a new federal permit becoming available to miners in 2016 found 37 unpatented mining claims in the stretch from Harpster to Elk City.)

In addition to state regulations, miners are subject to federal regulations, which involve submitting a “plan of operation.” In a June 12 letter, Red River District Ranger Terry Nevius notified miners a “short form” is available and may be used instead of the standard form – and let miners know they may “use any other appropriate format of your choice to submit the requested information.”

The Forest Service had set a May 12 deadline, but extended it in the interest of ensuring that all dredgers have the opportunity to be in compliance…while conducting their dredging operations.”

As of Monday, June 26, IDWR had received 11 applications.

The June 21 hearing materials are available online through and written public comments will be accepted through July 3. The permits will be issued to miners by July 10, Weaver noted in a June 26 e-mail.

“Many of the changes requested to date by the dredging community cannot be considered in time for the 2017 dredge season,” Weaver wrote June 26. “The [water resources board] and IDWR are committed to re-engaging with the dredgers and other stakeholders following the 2017 season to review the changes from this year and to consider additional requested changes for the 2018 season.”

Authority rests with the legislature

Late in the June 21 hearing, after Weaver explained how adopting the basin plan established certain aspects of the suction dredging regulation in state law, Tenmile Mining District secretary Ron Neilsen asked the water officials where the authority to make changes to the basin plan rests, to which Chase replied: “The state legislature.”

During an earlier exchange, Elk City miner Brian Koch expressed concern about access to the South Fork’s tributaries, which the basin plan limits. Asked if the department and water board are considering seeking changes to the basin plan, Chase said: “Not at this time.”

To which Koch responded: “I can guarantee you any place gold is found in the United States, they will be going in and getting it out, whether there’s regulations or not. Because they’ve got a lot more money to fight it than we do.”

Golart explained: “There is a process for you to work through to get into the tributaries.”

“Does it sound like you’re going to grant those?,” Koch asked.

“They’re case-by-case and we evaluate them independent of one another, and we consult the other agencies,” Golart said. “The answer to your question is, it’s possible. There’s a process. You have a right to due process, and we treat each application independent of one another and we look at what you’re proposing and the scale of the impact. … We administer the Stream Protection Act and also have to consider the basin plan because it’s a state-protected river. Some of the considerations would be the fishery and resource value. The resource is held in public trust, so we have to look at a variety of issues, including the things you folks are interested in and have mentioned. It’s something we consider as well, your livelihood.”

“It’s not really a livelihood any more,” Koch said, “but it could be.”


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