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Gold In Them Thar Hills 

Turning your old class ring into cash is easy; making bank off flakes in the river is getting harder.

Everyone who’s been watching TV lately (especially in the wee hours) has seen the new wave of ads promising huge cash rewards for your unused gold jewelry and coins. Struggling to make ends meet? Turn that old class ring into hard cash! (One particularly egregious ad shows a wife dialing Cash for Gold USA the second her oafish but blinged-out husband collapses at the breakfast table. Meanwhile, another woman harvests Granny's fillings-full kisser.)

The hype is unsurprising. Though the price of gold slumped this year, it has been skyrocketing of late. In January, it reached an eye-popping $975 an ounce, more than tripling its value when the surge began, shortly after September 2001. (Coincidence?)

It was around that time that Bill Baker took up his new hobby, voyaging a few times a year from his home in Omak to Hart’s Pass (an obscure and dangerous nook in the north Cascades, near Mazama) to sluice for gold flakes in the mountain streams. Baker, now a chapter leader for the Washington Prospectors Mining Association (WPMA), is one of an estimated 2,000 small-timers who still pan Washington’s rivers, tapping into a tradition that dates back over centuries in the West. He describes it as a family pastime. “It’s been a great experience for me,” he says. “My grandkids love to go out and play in the water.”

But the state of Washington worries that prospecting is a menace to fish and has devised a new set of regulations that revolves around when fish eggs are in the water and rests on the assumption that prospect mining is inherently dangerous to those eggs. “Shovels and their dredges will kill fish eggs,” says Greg Hueckel, an official with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Under Washington state law, prospectors need no permit to hunt for gold. They’re simply compelled to follow the guidelines in the official prospecting pamphlet, called the Gold and Fish Book. After a public review process, the state has changed some of those guidelines (effective with the publication of the new Gold and Fish Book next April), opening streams to digging and dredging at certain times but closing them at others.

“We wanted the likelihood of them encountering fish eggs to be minimized,” says Hueckel. He adds, “About 38 percent of their opportunity in July was lost. But it was gained in the fall.”

Prospectors, though, are fuming. And their ire has garnered national attention, including a feature in the national online magazine Slate and an AP story that has run in papers as far afield as Hartford, Conn.

“The timing windows suck,” says Bill Thomas, a WPMA coordinator out of Mt. Vernon. He says he’s glad that the new guidelines allow for year-round panning and sluicing (a less invasive means of prospecting) but says he’s confused by the state’s claims that digging and dredging hurt fish. “Done in a responsible manner, we’re actually beneficial to the streams,” he says. “[Granted], there’re guys who [are] worthy of tickets, for digging into the banks and stuff, but there’s a bad apple in every crowd.”

Thomas, Baker and others say the new windows for the more invasive means of prospecting are so narrow as to be prohibitive. “They’re saying we can’t get in [to Hart’s Pass] until October,” says Baker. “We’ll have to take a snowmobile to get in there.”

Hueckel points out that prospectors can always get around the no-strings pamphlet approach by applying for an official permit. “If they say, ‘I’ve had this claim for years,’ fine, we’ll go out, we’ll look at the area they want to dredge, we’ll make sure there’s no fish activity, and we’ll issue a permit for one to five years.”

But prospectors say it’s not so simple.

“To run a dredge outside of the 15-day window they give us, it’d be a $100 filing fee and $600 for the permit,” says Thomas. “Nobody brings home $700 in gold in a season. A person that does a good job, we’re bringing in about a quarter of an ounce in the three months we’ve always worked.” Now, with only a fraction of that window remaining, they say, the economics are beginning to look daunting.

“Ninety-nine percent of us are environmentally sensitive to what we’re doing,” adds Thomas, with a sigh. “We’re not out to kill fish. We’re out to have a good time and maybe find some gold.”

Baker sounds exasperated. “If you find a little flake of gold, it makes you happy. We’re definitely not trying to get rich.”

They obviously haven’t been watching enough late-night TV lately. 

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