SACRAMENTO, CA;  February 3, 2017:  California is illegally frustrating federal law by prohibiting suction-dredge mining — which effectively bans prospectors from working their streambed claims on federal land in the Golden State.

So argues an appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States just filed by Pacific Legal Foundation.  Donor-supported PLF is the leading legal watchdog organization that litigates nationwide for limited government, property rights, and balanced environmental regulations.  PLF filed the petition for certiorari on behalf of Brandon Rinehart, a part-time prospector from Antioch, California, who was criminally prosecuted by the state for using a suction dredge to work his claim in Plumas National Forest.  PLF represents Rinehart without charge, as with all its clients.

State lawmakers act like claim-jumpers on federal land

“California’s ban on suction-dredge mining frustrates federal policy and is preempted by federal law,” said PLF attorney Jonathan Wood.  “For nearly a century and a half, federal law has encouraged enterprising Americans to discover and mine for gold on federal land.  Prospectors have a right to stake out mining claims on federal land, and they have a right to work their claims.  And states have the authority to impose reasonable regulations on mining.  But California lawmakers have acted like claim-jumpers, banning mining regardless of whether the particular mining has any impacts or can be mitigated, rather than regulating it.  As our challenge argues, the state is acting unlawfully.”

Prospectors have used suction dredges for decades to search for gold; in fact, it is the only commercially practicable means of working streambed claims.  A suction dredge is essentially a vacuum with a lawnmower-sized motorized suction hose that draws sediment from the streambed, runs it through a sluice box to collect valuable minerals, and then returns the remaining sediment back to the stream from which it came.

For more than 50 years, suction-dredge mining has been an important means of mining in California and has been regulated by the state through a permit system.  But in 2009, the Legislature banned the activity, citing contested concerns about potential impacts to fish.  Although the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has formally reported that environmental impacts could be dealt with through revised regulations, the Legislature has dragged its feet in giving the agency the authority to do so.  All the while, the outright ban has remained in place and there is no end in sight.

According to Supreme Court precedent, states may not impose laws that “stand as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress.”  Rinehart argues that California’s ban runs head-on into the federal Mining Law of 1872, which declares federal lands “free and open” to mining.  Although the California Court of Appeal agreed that the state’s ban frustrates the Mining Law’s purpose and ruled for Rinehart, the California Supreme Court reversed that decision.  It held that states are free to ban mining as they see fit, regardless of how much they undermine the purposes of federal law.

“This case is not about whether the state can regulate suction-dredge mining,” said Wood.  “It’s about whether the state can simply prohibit suction-dredge mining rather than regulating it.  It can’t.  Federal mining law is designed to promote resource development by encouraging mining on federal lands.  California’s prohibition on suction-dredge mining contradicts that federal law by denying miners the ability to work streambed claims, without regard to whether the mining has any adverse impacts or, if so, whether those impacts can be mitigated.  Therefore, California’s ban is unlawful and preempted.

“The Supreme Court should take this case because the core principle is clear:  The state has no authority to undermine Congress’ choice to encourage mining on federal lands,” Wood continued.  “While California may regulate mining’s environmental impacts, it may not simply prohibit mining in lieu of regulating it.”

Part of the Golden State’s heritage is at stake

From the beginning, prospecting for gold has been an integral part of the Golden State’s history and heritage; indeed, the California State Seal features an image of a prospector.  Prospecting for gold remains popular today among thousands of entrepreneurs, outdoor lovers, and weekend hobbyists.

An electrical engineer by profession, Rinehart has a federal mining claim in Plumas National Forest that he and his father discovered together.

“I was shocked when I was cited by state officers for working my claim in the national forest, because suction-dredge mining is encouraged by federal law and had always been permitted by the state,” said Rinehart.  “The ban doesn’t make sense.  As the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s own findings showed, any environmental concerns can be dealt with by revised regulations.  This ban is unnecessary and illegal.  I’m very grateful to be represented by PLF in fighting for my rights and the rights of prospectors up and down the state.”


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About Pacific Legal Foundation

Pacific Legal Foundation is a national nonprofit law firm that defends Americans threatened by government overreach and abuse. Since our founding in 1973, we challenge the government when it violates individual liberty and constitutional rights. With active cases in 34 states plus Washington, D.C., PLF represents clients in state and federal courts, with 17 wins of 19 cases litigated at the U.S. Supreme Court.

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