Searching for a stream of gold: Proposed regulations would close some Maine waterways to motorized mining

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Some recreational gold prospectors aren’t shouting “eureka” at Maine’s Land Use Planning Commission’s proposed changes that would close off certain bodies of water to motorized equipment used in mining the mineral.

Mark Folk photo  Phillip Moulton and Harry Blake, members of the Central Maine Gold Prospectors, search for gold. Proposed regulations would not allow for motorized prospecting equipment in certain waterways in the state.
Mark Folk photo
Phillip Moulton and Harry Blake, members of the Central Maine Gold Prospectors, search for gold. Proposed regulations would not allow for motorized prospecting equipment in certain waterways in the state.

The commission voted at its Jan. 14 meeting to post the proposed Chapter 10 revisions to the National Recreation and Park Association’s Consistency and Recreational Gold Prospecting regulations, which includes a 30-day comment period. Stacie Beyer, senior planner with the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said by phone Monday that the proposed changes would update the state’s standards and incorporate recent legislative changes to two of its laws.

Key changes include updating limits on equipment, adding a definition of motorized recreational gold prospecting and adding closed areas to motorized gold prospecting, Beyer said. The latter includes certain habitats for Atlantic trout and brook trout, along with Class AA waters, which state statute defines as “high quality waters of the state constitute an outstanding national resource that water quality must be maintained and protected.”

Closing off some streams to motorized prospecting has Phillip Moulton, the president of Central Maine Gold Prospectors, and his club worried. He said by phone Monday that they mostly go searching for gold in the western part of the state, including Byron, the Rangeley area, the east branch of the Swift River, Carrabassett Valley, the Sandy River and a few other places.

“We fought real hard last year at the legislative level trying to keep most of these streams open,” he said. “We worked with some groups like Trout Unlimited (and) we basically came to a compromise that keeps the most important streams for us open but it does close some streams that we do like to go prospecting in.”

Some of these areas include South Bog Stream in Rangeley and parts of the 73-mile Sandy River, which flows from Sandy River Plantation to through Farmington and eventually to the Kennebec River.

“Individuals can still go there. … They can use sluices, they can do all the pan stuff,” Moulton said, adding that these areas will be off limits to dredges and hard bankers.

And yet, the proposed changes to motorized equipment doesn’t bother Moulton or his club members. They would actually increase the horsepower allowed in motorized prospecting equipment — including the dredge and hard banker — from six to seven.

“It’s not a big update, it just updates it to modern times,” he said.

One of the two main types of motorized equipment used in recreational gold prospecting is the dredge, which Moulton explained is equivalent to an underwater vacuum cleaner.

“It sucks up gravel from the river bottom and it runs it through a sluice box and it retains all the heavy metals — gold, mercury — and deposits gravel back into the stream,” he said. “We find mercury on pieces of gold. Mercury and gold have a natural attraction to each other.”

The hard banker is similar to a dredge, but it only pumps water into a sluice box and the miner has to put the gravel into the box. The sand is sifted out and the prospector has to pick through the material to see if he or she has found any gold, he said.

Ken Briggs, the president of the Oxford County Mineral and Gem Association, said by phone Monday that he’s a lover of minerals and brook trout. Unlike Moulton, he supports the ban on motorized prospecting equipment in certain areas of the state.

“They should have done it 50 years ago. It’s my personal opinion because before I started collecting rocks, I liked catching brook trout and brook trout and silt don’t go together,” he said. “Mining is necessary but it’s got to be done safe because heavy metals and acids take forever to go away and heavy metals, they don’t go away.”

But for Moulton — who said he was first introduced to gold prospecting by his father and grandfather — he isn’t in it for the money. He said over the course of 20 or so years, he’s collected roughly two ounces of gold. The biggest piece he discovered weighed roughly one-quarter of a gram, which is equivalent to the size of a match head.

“I know some people have done better and a lot of people have done way worse,” he said. “Most people don’t even know about gold in Maine, they know about tourmaline. They say, ‘Oh you find gold in Maine, that’s interesting.’”

Even with certain areas that would be closed to dredges and hard bankers under the proposed rules, Moulton hopes things could change. He said there’s been conflicting results in a number of studies done in the last 30 or so years about the effects gold prospecting has on brook trout. He said that state biologists are currently studying the issue.

“I think we’re going to visit it again in another year or so and see what science can show us,” Moulton said.

As for the 30-day comment period on the proposed changes, the deadline for written comments is Friday, March 27. Any rebuttal comments will be accepted until Friday, April 3. Beyer said people can send the comments to her at Stacie Beyer, 106 Hogan Road, Suite 8, Bangor, ME 04401 or through email at stacie.r.beyer@maine.gov.

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