Wild. Beautiful. Awe-inspiring. These words capture the spirit and natural beauty of our beloved state and the incredible diversity of species that call it home. As Washington residents, we have a duty to be stewards of our great landscape. We served as the directors of the Washington state Department of Ecology for 12 of the last 15 years — and have dedicated our careers to protecting, preserving and restoring Washington’s natural resources and environment.
Today, several iconic species that comprise both our heritage and our legacy — salmon, steelhead, orca — struggle to survive. We are all painfully aware that southern resident orca are dependent on chinook salmon for survival. All of us must do everything in our power to save them.
We cannot sit idly by and allow these ancient cohabitants of our state to dwindle to extinction. These are not hollow words — there is a very real threat that these creatures will be forever lost. The status quo has failed, and we must make changes to restore and protect salmon, steelhead and orca — pure incarnations of the very heart and soul of the Pacific Northwest — now and for future generations.
Although salmon and orca restoration is complex, one of the first steps is obvious: prohibit mechanized suction dredge mining in sensitive fish habitat.
Suction dredge mining is a form of mineral prospecting that uses gas-powered pumps to literally vacuum the bottom of streams and rivers to search for gold. It is mostly done by hobbyists and provides little societal benefit. It doesn’t create jobs or provide raw material necessary for medicine or advanced technology. It simply provides a few the thrill of the hunt for gold. But the cost — destroying critical spawning habitat for salmon and steelhead in our creeks and rivers — is unacceptably high.
There are currently no restrictions on where suction dredge mining is allowed. Ironically, it is commonly done in sandy and gravelly streambeds — precisely where endangered salmon and steelhead lay their eggs — habitat that we value most and spend millions of taxpayer dollars to protect and restore.
Compared to our neighbors, Washington state is an outlier in its lack of protection for habitat critical to the survival of endangered salmon and steelhead. Idaho, Oregon, Alaska and Montana all prohibit suction dredge mining in designated “Critical Habitat” areas for salmon. California has banned the activity altogether due to the harm it causes to fisheries.
Through years of hard work and advocacy, a dedicated pro-reform coalition led by Trout Unlimited that is now 150 organizations strong has made some progress on this issue through incremental administrative-policy adjustments, but legislative action is needed to enact meaningful change. Up for consideration in the 2020 Washington Legislature, House Bill 1261 and Senate Bill 6149 would ban mechanized suction dredge mining in designated critical habitat areas for salmon, steelhead and bull trout, and would ensure that miners abide by the requirements of the Clean Water Act.
This legislation will not prevent small-scale mining using nonmotorized methods in critical habitat or motorized mining in noncritical habitat areas. Passing these bills is a modest first step that is long overdue.
Let’s all do our part as stewards of our beautiful state and urge our legislators to pass motorized suction dredge mining reform. Call or email your legislators and ask them to support HB 1261 and SB 6149. Time is of the essence to take this necessary step to protect our iconic salmon, steelhead and orcas from the brink of extinction.