Good Life

Gold prospecting raises concerns about ecosystem damage to N.C. river

ELDORADO, N.C. — Gold prospectors chasing $1,600-an-ounce flecks in river bottoms east of Charlotte also might be sucking life out of the streams, experts say.

As the price of gold mounts, some weekend prospectors have turned to machines called suction dredges. The devices work like underwater vacuum cleaners, sucking gravel and dirt into sluice boxes that catch any gold and dump other material back into the river.

That's a problem for anything living on the bottom, including mussels, fish eggs and aquatic insects, which can be killed by the machines or smothered in stirred-up sediment. California placed a moratorium on the practice in 2009 because of its damage to spawning salmon.

North Carolina requires no permits for recreational prospecting. But increased pressure from enthusiasts has raised concern on the Uwharrie River, which flows through the gold-rich heart of the Piedmont about 50 miles east of Charlotte.

"There's always a couple of people down there on the weekends, suction dredging," said Jason Walser, executive director of LandTrust for Central North Carolina, a Salisbury conservation group that owns 1,300 acres along the Uwharrie. "What we have seen is a steady increase both in the number of people and in the equipment investment and the time they're spending out there."

Last spring, LandTrust posted its property to keep out prospectors, igniting a firestorm of protest, Walser said. The 51,000-acre Uwharrie National Forest banned suction dredging about five years ago.

"If we left it unchecked it would be a big deal. It would cause some serious resource damage," said Uwharrie district ranger Deborah Walker.

The forest holds about a dozen old mining sites, and more are on private land nearby. In addition to suction dredging, forest rules prohibit prospecting with metal detectors to prevent trampling of rare plants or historic sites.

As prospecting pressure rose with gold prices, forest managers began working on policy changes to further limit its intensity, such as by limiting the size of sluice boxes.

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