There are plenty of reasons to visit northern New Hampshire – including, for more people than you might think, prospecting for gold in its streams.
But that would be prospecting for gold via panning by hand rather than dredging for gold with machinery, if a bill making its way through the Legislature has its way.
“There’s a surprising amount of damage that can be done by one of these things,” said Rep. Lee Oxenham, a Plainfield Democrat, referring to a process known as suction dredging, which would be outlawed under her bill.
The bill also would outlaw similar processes and technologies with names like “rocker box” and “highbanking,” which suck up stones and water from steambeds via small gasoline-powered pumps and filter them in some way to help the users spot tiny flecks of gold that might be there.
New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services says these processes stir up too much silt and mud, “releasing fine sediments back into the stream” that can harm life in the waterway.
“The turbidity can go for thousands of yards – it’s not just localized,” said Oxenham. “It’s disruptive for fish, insects, the benthic community in all its forms.”
The term “benthic” refers to the lowest point in any body of water.
“We need to try to keep our headwaters as clean and clear as they can be,” she said. “I was surprised to find it is done a lot in the Connecticut River, in the headwaters.”
Further, she added, the noise and smell of the machines “can drive those searching for the unmediated, unspoiled experience of our natural wonders out of the state, along with their tourist dollars.”
The bill, House Bill 591, has passed the House and has been referred to the state Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources committee.
A resurgence in small-scale prospecting for gold in recent years has led several states to ban suction dredging, including California, Oregon and Washington state. Maine and Vermont have both put limits on the procedure.
An Associated Press story from October 2016 estimated that 3,000 gold prospectors exist in New England.
About 140 permits are issued annually by the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services to allow dredging for gold on state waterways. Roughly 60 percent of those go to out-of-state residents – partly, says Collis Adams of DES, because Vermont doesn’t allow mechanical dredging “so there are a lot of prospectors coming over from Vermont.”
New Hampshire was home to a small gold rush after some veins of the mineral were discovered in Lyman in 1864, but the mines didn’t last long.
Gold winds up in streams after the rocks containing it are broken apart by wind or water. Since gold doesn’t weather and is much heavier than water, it washes down to the bottom of streams, where it is known as a placer deposit.
Separating the gold flakes from other minerals is usually done by panning or dredging. “Some gold panning and dredging has been done over the last 300 years of New Hampshire’s history, with varying degrees of success,” says a state information sheet about gold.
“Those gold panning may not use a shovel to dig into the stream bottom or stream banks. Scooping gravel up with the gold pan is allowed,” notes the sheet.
Legally, all surface water in New Hampshire belongs to the state and is generally open to public use, but the beds of streams or rivers are property of the landowner – including the state or, in the White Mountains National Forest, the federal government.
Panning by hand can usually be done on government-owned waters without a permit, but operating a motorized dredge of any kind requires a permit.
Oxenham said the state DES was in the process of reviewing its rules for dredging when she proposed her bill, which the department supports.
(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or email@example.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)