A 21st century gold rush that's good for the environment?

By Jayson Jacoby April 08, 2011 12:21 pm

The reality that a single ounce of any substance is worth $1,400 can exert a considerable influence on a person.

Especially when the substance in question is legal and can be peddled on the open market.

(Certain drugs have a comparable value, but dealing in them, unless you’re a licensed pharmacist, is a clandestine matter. Also, the people who get into that line of work frequently end up not with a lucrative investment but rather a long prison sentence or a bullet in the head from a short-barreled handgun.)

Gold, by contrast, has for centuries been a socially acceptable, and treasured, commodity pretty much everywhere on the globe.

It’s no coincidence, certainly, that the colloquialism is “good as gold” rather than “good as cocaine.”

(Also why the world’s greatest athletes don’t win the heroin medal.)

Anyway, since the price of gold began its record-setting escalation a couple years ago (a record if you don’t adjust for inflation, that is) I’ve been awaiting tangible evidence that this trend is having any effect around here.

Something more tangible, at any rate, than my own daydream about mucking around with a pan in a local stream for a few hours and sifting out enough flakes to buy a lift kit for my FJ Cruiser.

I was interested, then, to learn a few weeks ago that the lure of profits had enticed somebody to plow several feet of compacted snow from two forest roads near Sumpter so they could get to the historic mining district at Cable Cove.

This action implies to me a powerful impatience on the part of the plower, considering the warmth of spring will do the work for free.

(In theory, that is. I can appreciate someone being skeptical about the timely onset of spring hereabouts. It is surely the least reliable season.)

Knowing little about economics and less still about mining, I can’t manage even a semi-educated guess about whether anything noteworthy, or precious, will come of this presumptive plowing.

It’s an intriguing question, though — the more so because the pursuit of gold was so integral to the birth of Baker County and Baker City.

The wealth of the mines built many of our city’s finest homes and commercial structures, and it helped to ensure that the city would become one of the important settlements of Eastern Oregon.

As indeed it remains, almost a century and a half after Henry Griffin made the first strike in a gulch several miles southwest of what today is Baker City.

Yet to gauge how much time has passed since the extraction of gold has made more than a trivial contribution to the county’s economy, consider this: Back then nobody in the music industry except Sam Phillips could tell you who Elvis Presley was.

The year, to be specific, was 1954.

In that year the last of the massive dredges which plied (or plundered, depending on your ecological perspective) Sumpter Valley’s gold-bearing alluvials ceased its relentless digging.

During the ensuing 57 years, agriculture, timber, tourism and government have fueled our economic engine.

(Although timber, in the past dozen years, has dwindled to a position barely above gold mining.)

A lot of rock still gets gouged from the mountains, to be sure, but the biggest operation, at Ash Grove Cement Co.’s factory near Durkee, could better be described as quarrying.

The limestone there fetches a fair price, but Ash Grove needs considerably more than an ounce of it to clear $1,400.

(Considerably more than a ton, I imagine, come to that.)

The high but brief plateau in gold prices in early 1980 prompted a flurry of gold prospecting in Baker County, including the digging of a substantial tunnel on the southern outskirts of Bourne.

But prices soon plummeted, and mining companies focused on the more accessible gold deposits — and more friendly regulatory atmosphere — of Nevada.

A significant percentage of Oregonians would, I suspect, prefer that the status quo continue.

Gold mining, to be sure, can be a messy business.

I wonder, though, whether reviving the industry here might actually restore, rather than further degrade, places sullied by the rather indiscriminate mining that went on before there was such an entity as the EPA.

(Or the DEQ, or a host of other agencies known by their initials.)

Back before the First World War, when much of the truly intense hard-rock mining was being undertaken in these parts, miners took few precautions with the sometimes poisonous process of separating gold from ore.

Cyanide, for instance, was a common ingredient. And based on what I’ve read, mine owners in those halcyon days needn’t worry much about the government saddling them with a ruinous fine if they let some cyanide seep into a stream.

Nor was reclamation — basically, cleaning up your mess after you’ve extracted the gold — a matter of great concern.

Today, by contrast, if you want to do much of anything besides dipping a pan in an unclaimed section of creek (and beware that: you’re responsible for making sure you don’t violate somebody’s legally staked claim), you’ll probably need a permit.

Or five.

Certainly you won’t get away with leaving piles of arsenic-laden tailings strewn about to sterilize the soil and spawn two-headed trout.

It seems to me plausible, should gold keep its current glittery status for a few years, that investors will try to plumb some of the richer old veins.

I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t focus on proven deposits, anyway. Besides which, this might prove whether the adage, “there’s more gold in the hills than was ever taken out,” is legitimate.

Considering the major advancements in technology, it might even prove profitable to do today what Chinese miners did a century and more ago — to rework the waste rock that whites had already skimmed.

Such an operation, performed under current environmental standards, could amount to essentially a dual process: mining and reclamation in one step.

Which is sort of like digging up a landfill to get at the recyclables.

Except gold is worth a lot more than plastic milk jugs.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.