A region known as the Siskiyou wild rivers watershed in Southwest Oregon is among 10 areas nationwide cited by a conservation group as being threatened by mining activity.

A region known as the Siskiyou wild rivers watershed in Southwest Oregon is among 10 areas nationwide cited by a conservation group as being threatened by mining activity.

More than 800 new mining claims have been staked in the Siskiyous since 2000, causing environmental disturbance that is putting the region's rare plants and sensitive fisheries at risk, according to the report released Friday by the Pew Environmental Group. In particular, the group cited mining activity in the Chetco River and in Rough and Ready Creek in the southwest portion of the Illinois Valley.

However, a spokesman for a local mining organization took issue with claims that mining is significantly harming the environment or the suggestion that more miners are now working in the region.

Neither the staff at the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest nor the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Medford District could verify the claim numbers late Friday afternoon.

The Siskiyou wild rivers area includes most of the streams in Southwest Oregon, including the Applegate, Chetco, Illinois and Rogue. In addition to the Siskiyou region, the group also listed at risk the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument in Washington; Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota; Gila Wilderness in New Mexico; Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado and Utah; and the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Arches, Canyonlands and Joshua Tree national parks.

Concluding that the areas are in jeopardy because of a dramatic increase in gold, uranium and other mining activities, the Pew group called on the Obama administration to work with Congress to modernize the 1872 mining law that still governs mining on public lands in the West.

"With mining allowed on most public lands, the Obama administration should use its power to protect the Grand Canyon and other natural treasures," said Jane Danowitz, public lands director for the Pew Environment Group, in a prepared statement. "It should also address the root of the problem by working with Congress to pass bipartisan legislation to modernize the 1872 Mining Law."

Sean Stevens, spokesman for the Portland-based Oregon Wild conservation group, agreed.

"It is far past time that special places like the Siskiyou wild rivers no longer be at constant risk from a law written in the horse-and-buggy days," he said. "While Congress continues to work toward a modernization of the 1872 Mining Law, it is imperative that the Obama administration maintain the pristine quality of places like the Siskiyous and Grand Canyon."

Although he said he wasn't against all mining, he said too much mining has had a negative impact on the local environment, particularly in the Rough and Ready Creek drainage.

"No doubt there is a place for mining, but the issue with the 1872 law is that it has been a free-for-all," he said. "It has literally been free for mining companies, while taxpayers get stuck with bill of cleaning it up."

But miner Tom Kitchar, president of the Waldo Mining District which was established in the Illinois Valley in 1852, rejected those claims and defended the law. Mining for the past century and a half hasn't killed off the fishery, he noted.

"This whole area has been mined for more than 150 years — gold was discovered here in the winter of 1851-52," said the Illinois Valley resident who has been mining for more than 30 years. "Most miners today are small-scale miners. And most do their mining on weekends or during summer vacation.

"And any operation that is going to cause significant surface disturbance, you have to submit a plan of operation first," he added.

As for more miners, he discounts any suggestion of a gold rush.

"There may be a few extra new people but not many," he said, although he notes that new claims may be filed on those no longer being mined or because the owner has passed on. "But, generally, I haven't seen a noticeable increase in the number of people trying to mine."

He also took exception to recent claims that a "horde of miners" would descend on Oregon because of a law that went into effect last year in California that prevented dredging in rivers.

"In fact, I know of only 34 extra miners who came up here because of that," he said. "They found that most of the good creeks were already claimed up. Nearly every stream in Josephine County carries a small amount of gold, and they are already covered with claims."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.