'Gold in them thar creeks'

Posted: Friday, June 18, 2010

Business is booming at Southeast Mine Supply, and it's not just because the world's newest gold mine is about to open less than 45 miles away.

With gold fetching up to $1,200 an ounce, recreational mining is gaining in popularity, according to store owner Bill Wilcox.

Wilcox's business is geared toward commercial supply but he added recreational gold-panning items such as plastic pans and mini digital scales about three years ago at the request of customers. Business in that sector is up at least 30 percent this year.

Members of the local chapter of Trout Unlimited are concerned increased interest in recreational gold mining could impact fishing in local streams and creeks - especially those where fish spawn. The group formed to protect the Montana Creek watershed, where its members say they enjoy the best urban fishing in Juneau. But a recent application for suction dredge mining on a tributary of the creek raised the eyebrows of some members.

The application for suction dredge mining -- which involves sucking stones from the creek bottom through a hose into a sluice to sift out gold -- came in at nearly the same time as a request to cross Montana Creek with ATVs.

The applications were separate but fishermen are concerned about what they see as increasing pressure on the creek for potentially damaging recreational activities.

ATV riding is not likely to be permitted at this time but Jake Miller received a permit to mine for gold by suction dredging in McGinnis Creek starting this month.

Miller declined to comment for this story. His permit, issued by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, runs for six weeks and is for this summer only.

Habitat Division Area Manager Jackie Timothy said she felt sure the presence of steelhead in the creek would cause her to deny the permit, but then she and her staff went looking for them and couldn't find any -- not in the stream, and not in the history books, either.

Steelhead would prevent suction dredge mining during the timeframe of the permit because that's when the fish would lay their eggs on the creek bottom. Other species known to use the creek lay eggs during different times of the year.

Timothy found out there was no documentation of steelhead in McGinnis Creek, although they are listed in Montana Creek. She was disappointed.

"I've known for 20 years there were steelhead in McGinnis," she said. "To not be able to document that was startling."

She and her staff set up a weir, baby-sitting it every day for nearly a month, making 55 trips up to the confluence of the creeks to look for fish. They never saw a steelhead.

Trout Unlimited is not concerned about Miller's permit but wants the state to do more to determine whether steelhead run in McGinnis Creek.

"One suction dredge in a short stretch of stream for a month may not be a big problem," said Chris Zimmer, president of the Juneau Trout Unlimited chapter. "What if we get three, four, five, six proposals and they expand in area? Our position is that type of activity should not happen in an anadromous stream below an anadromous barrier. Once you start doing that, where do you draw the line?"

The organization also wants the department to reconsider its approach.

"This focus on steelhead is really putting the creek to the test and making the creek prove itself, rather than putting the onus on the applicant to prove that fish aren't there," Zimmer said. "Why not use a precautionary principle that would assume if there are steelhead in Montana Creek there are steelhead in McGinnis Creek."

Habitat Biologist Joe Hitselberger said the department can't make assumptions when considering a permit application.

"You have to base your permitting decisions on facts," he said.

So while Miller is likely to head out to the creek to look for gold soon, local biologists are going to be looking for fish.

"There could be some unforeseen factor that makes (steelhead) not go into McGinnis," Hitselberger said. "But just because we didn't find any doesn't mean there aren't any there."

Meanwhile, Wilcox has six suction dredges on back order at his valley retail shop.

"Every time the gold goes up we get more customers," he said.

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