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Antiquated mining technique goes under the microscope

BLM concerned placer mining is damaging riverbanks

By Heather Sackett
Associate Editor
Published: Sunday, February 3, 2013 10:29 AM CST
Toby Walker is president of the Durango Diggers, a non-profit club whose members carry on a defining tradition of the West — placer mining.

The club, which has about 30 members, has claims on both the La Plata and San Miguel rivers, although Walker said the one on the San Miguel has lapsed and is now open to anyone. Filing with the county and paying a fee ensures that the club owns the mineral rights on the claim, making it off limits to other would be gold hunters.

Most recreational placer miners don’t expect to strike it rich. Although Walker says the San Miguel is gold-rich compared with other rivers, the flakes are small and fine, and it takes a huge haul to even make back the gas money prospectors spend driving to their claim. The Diggers, he says, is more like a social club whose members enjoy spending time in nature.

“People come through and want to get rich quick,” Walker said. “You lose interest pretty fast if that’s what you’re trying to do. It’s a great hobby that can sometimes put money in your pocket. There’s a chance you can be reimbursed.”

Some use the old-fashioned method of panning to separate the heavy gold flakes, which sink to the bottom, from the rest of the rivers’ detritus. Walker’s strategy is a bit more unusual.

“The most productive for me has been a metal detector,” he said. “The technology is so much advanced in the past 10 years. I have some techniques and trade secrets of where I can go.”

Placer mining on the San Miguel River has recently come under the scrutiny of the Colorado Bureau of Land Management, but not for the methods described above. What the BLM says it’s worried about are suction dredges, which suck up sediment — and gold — from the river bottom, sometimes creating large holes in the process. The operation consists of a gas-powered dredge pump, hoses and a metal sluice box that filters sediment through screens. Sometimes a prospector will don a wetsuit and regulator and get into the water to help guide the hose.

BLM Uncompaghre Field Office Manager Barbara Sharrow says last fall her agency discovered several places where placer miners had been digging and dredging into the riverbanks, causing erosion and in some cases resulting in four-by-five-foot pits. If the holes aren’t filled in, the spring runoff causes the river to widen, Sharrow said. Some holes have been dug underneath trees, making it almost certain they will be washed away. The most popular places for placer mining on the San Miguel — and where the most damage is taking place — are near the Piñon River bridge, the Norwood bridge and around the town of Naturita.

“We are getting into some resource damage there,” Sharrow said. “We need to work closer with the clubs and a lot of individuals who go out. We need to come up with some options.”

To that end, the BLM is currently researching the issue and is planning on meeting with regional placer mining clubs this winter. Grand Junction and Olathe also have clubs. The meetings will also address claims and Sharrow encourages aspiring miners to get maps from the BLM office in Montrose.

Walker said members of his club are good stewards of the river, and if they dig holes, they fill them in. The club also helps keep the waterways healthy by walking the banks and picking up trash during every outing, he said.

“It just gives us all a bad name,” he said. “The people in our club are great. If they dig any holes, they fill them in. There’s always a bad seed that comes in.”

He said it would be a great idea for the BLM to come and present alongside the geologists, historians and other guest speakers at the group’s monthly meetings.

“It would be great if they would come talk to us about the regulations and what they mean,” Walker said.

Sharrow is not against placer mining. But with gold prices high — an ounce is worth nearly $1,700 — the hobby is sure to continue to attract amateur prospectors. She said the activity has gotten more popular since the economy tanked.

“It’s kind of a cool activity I think,” Sharrow said. “We need to work with the folks so we are not damaging the resources and we come to a good place there. That’s my goal.”


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