TWRA concerned about gold prospecting in Little River
By Iva Butler | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The practice of gold prospecting in Little River is pitting a few hobbyists against some government agencies responsible for protecting state waters.
David Owens, of Jefferson County, whose sister lives on Browns School Road in Maryville, said he and his son Michael have applied to the U.S. Corps of Engineers for a recreation gold prospecting and dredging permit.
“We are the first people to go to the state in over 100 years seeking permits,” he said.
However, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) says dredging in Little River is illegal.
TWRA has received complaints recently from various recreational users concerning dredging activities in the river.
TWRA Region IV Manager John Gregory said his office received a complaint “from a woman saying people were working in the river with equipment and turning over rocks and she did not think that was right.”
Region IV encompasses the 21 most eastern counties in the state, including Blount.
About 10 days ago, a TWRA biologist in the environmental division in Morristown was sent to Blount County to investigate the claims.
Gregory said “he found some people digging for gold in Little River. He had them cease operations and took their names and addresses.”
TWRA Environmental Division Chief David McKinney in Nashville said names and addresses are being gathered of people found using mechanical devices in the area — which mainly is happening in Polk, Monroe and Blount counties.
When such miners are found, they are being advised that what they are doing is illegal and giving them the opportunity to stop and remove their equipment. They are also being told not to do it elsewhere in Tennessee, he said.
When asked what they will do to repeat offenders, all McKenney would say is “we reserve the right to take all appropriate activities as is provided for in the law.”
He confirmed that among several options are fines and confiscation of equipment.
“Our sincere aim is to inform people they are participating in an illegal activity and hope for the best that people will be cooperative and cease that activity,” he added.
The people TWRA is hearing from the most are the traditional prospectors “that fear this will somehow cause them to lose the ability to pursue their hobby,” McKenney said.
Tennessee has a long tradition of people panning for gold using sieves, homemade sluice boxes, buckets and hand tools such as shovels and trowels. Panning for gold is considered by many to be an enjoyable family activity. Small-scale panning using traditional techniques and hand tools does not pose a threat to Tennessee’s extraordinary aquatic life, McKenney said.
“Complaints are centered on practices that include the use of suction dredges to excavate large holes in the river bottom and the discharge of muddy water downstream from dredging activities,” according to a TWRA release.
“Also, there has been the blanketing of shoals with sediment, petroleum products on the water and the use of high pressure hoses to blast holes in the river bank.”
According to TWRA, “the destruction of aquatic habitat and related water pollution by suction dredging, use of backhoes or trackhoes or other machinery for gold mining in Tennessee streams and rivers is an illegal activity.”
According to Owens, the situation was stirred up July 4 weekend when two men were running a dredge above a swimming area between Walland and Townsend where two picnic tables are located along East Lamar Alexander Parkway. The operation caused muddy water in the swimming area.
Owens said a mother of children swimming in the river came up to the men, and the dredgers became belligerent and verbally abusive to the woman.
“We’ve got along there for years. Then it started getting out (that we were looking for gold),” he said.
Owens said normally there are four or five prospectors in Little River on the weekends and two to three on weekdays.
“We’re not doing something destructive. This is something we can pass on to our kids. The mud picked up is no more than the mud people kick up walking on the river bottom,” he said.
Owens said his equipment is “basically a shop vac with a hose that is three inches in diameter and 2.5 inches in diameter at the end.”
His shop vac sits in “a little miniature pontoon boat and the vacuum cleaner hose sucks it up.”
He’s not getting rich. He has panned three grams of gold out of Little River. “It takes a lot of time and effort,” Owens said.
He has also gotten sinkers, nails, screws, horseshoes and car parts buried in the bottom of the river.
The gravel is returned to the river 10 to 15 feet downstream from where it is picked up, he said.
“The majority of us are not trying to tick off the landowners. It’s a hobby, like arrowhead hunting. We just want to take our kids down there and enjoy the river, like fishermen, tubers and kayakers,” said Owens, a sheet metal mechanic by trade.
He said he has been practicing the hobby off and on over 12 years. He saw a television show in he late 1990s about gold camps in North Carolina and thought it sounded interesting.
He started in North Carolina. In Marion, N.C. there are 20 or 30 gold camp campgrounds in an eight- to 10-mile stretch of road, he said.
“In North Carolina these people never have a problem with it,” he added.
Owens said people also prospect for gold in Coker Creek in and near Cherokee National Forest outside Tellico Plains in Polk County.
TDEC studying it
However, TWRA does not view the activity as so innocent and harmless as Owens portrays it.
“The Little River is extremely popular with visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Townsend area. Trout fishing, smallmouth bass fishing, tubing, canoeing and wading are among the activities attracting in-state and out-of-state visitors and local residents to the area,” TWRA officials noted in a news release.
“The use of commercial grade suction dredges, large scale sluice systems, diesel-powered pumps and mechanical shovels, including backhoes and trackhoes, and the use of high pressure hoses to blast away riparian habitat in a method called ‘high bank mining’ has become an aquatic habitat destruction issue in several states. The use of commercial scale mining equipment by individuals is apparently being promoted by both equipment manufacturers and cable television programs about gold mining,” according to TWRA.
Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation spokeswoman Meg Lockhart said “TDEC is aware of gold dredging activity in the Little River. TDEC is reviewing the activity in the context of our existing regulatory framework and staff is in consultation with other stakeholders, including TWRA and the Forest Service. Obviously, our primary goal is to strike a reasonable balance that is protective of our natural resources.”