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Gold Diggers Hurt Lane County Parks

Digging along the McKenzie River in Armitage Park Photo by Frank Armendariz
Digging along the McKenzie River in Armitage Park Photo by Frank Armendariz

Gold mining and all its negative environmental effects have made their way to the waterways of Lane County. River guide Frank Armendariz was out walking his dog early in May in an open section of Armitage Park when he says he saw a Jeep parked inside a portion of the park still locked behind gates and a man digging away at the riverbank. Gold mining in southern Oregon has led not just to the degradation of rivers but also to shootings and legal battles, but, until now, it has not been much of an issue on the McKenzie River. 

Panning for gold is a type of what is called placer mining. A miner digs up dirt and gravel from hard-packed streambed, puts it in a pan, then swirls it through water, sifting out rocks and sand, while the heavier gold sinks to the bottom of the pan. Digging into stream banks damages riparian areas along the water, which affects water quality and habitat.

Armendariz reported the digging to the park host and to Lane County Parks, he says. He says when he spoke to the park host about his concerns, “Turns out the guy digging in the bank was the brother-in-law of the park host, and the park host had unlocked the gate and had allowed his brother-in-law in the closed section knowing he was going to be digging in the bank.”

Last week, Armendariz, who has been active in efforts to protect the waters, fish and wildlife of the McKenzie and other rivers, was back at the park and, to his dismay, he saw more cars parked with the Jeep and five or six more people digging into the riverbank. He reports he saw digging again on June 18.

According to the Department of State Lands (DSL), which regulates recreational placer mining, “Prospectors are limited to removing less than one cubic yard of material from within the bed or wet perimeter of any single state scenic waterway or essential salmon habitat stream annually.” No prospecting is allowed when fish eggs are present. Armendariz says the digging he has already seen is more than one cubic yard. The DSL also says that landowner permission is required, even when the land is publicly owned.

Lane County Parks Manager Mike Russell says that permission has not been given to anyone to dig in the parks, and in fact Lane County regulations do not allow for the removal of anything from the parks, from gold mining to digging through trash to metal detecting, because of possible damage to the parks. He says signs will probably be posted, and there is “absolutely an ecological concern” with digging in the riparian area. 

Russell says it appears that “word has gotten out” that the park is a good area to prospect and that the parks office has been getting complaints. 

“Thirty years on the McKenzie from Olallie to the confluence,” Armendariz says, “I have never seen anyone doing anything that could be called mining or panning for gold.” He thinks the change is due to a moratorium on motorized suction-dredge mining in California. Two bills that would have placed a moratorium on suction-dredge mining in essential salmon habitat and considered adding rivers to the scenic waterways designation were in the Oregon Legislature this session. The moratorium bill was scheduled for a work session June 20 in the Joint Ways and Means Committee.