Impact of prospecting weighed; state to regulate gold hunting at Coker Creek
- By Morgan Simmons
- Posted August 6, 2013 at 5 a.m.
TELLICO PLAINS, Tenn. — In the mountains of Monroe County flows a postcard-pretty stream called Coker Creek that’s famous for its cascading waterfalls, trout fishing and gold.
That’s right, gold. In 1827, two decades before gold fever hit California, Tennessee had a gold rush of its own. White settlers knew the precious mineral was in Coker Creek as early as 1826, but because the land belonged to the Cherokee Indians, the gold rush did not begin in earnest until 1836 after the U.S. government took possession of all Cherokee lands east of the Mississippi River.
The Coker Creek gold rush was short-lived — no mother lode was discovered, and the gravels never yielded enough gold to make anyone rich — but the fever never was completely cured. Today, amateur prospectors still are drawn to Tennessee’s gold belt, a region in the southeast corner of the state concentrated mainly on Coker Creek and the Tellico River.
While some still pan for gold, others use a machine called a suction dredge that uses a small gasoline engine to power a hose that sucks up streambed material and pumps it to a sluice box floating on the surface.
Confronted with the increasing popularity of gold prospecting in general and suction dredging in particular, the Tennessee Department of Conservation is in the process of drafting a general permit that would regulate where and how people mine for gold.
“We knew there was a tradition of panning and dredging around Coker Creek and Tellico,” said Jonathon Burr, program manager with the mining section of TDEC’s division of water resources. “We’ve seen it spread to other streams, and we want to set reasonable limits as it continues to grow.”
Popular streams suffer damage
The details of the general permit for recreational gold mining still are being hashed out, but state environmental officials say that generally speaking the new requirements will seek to relieve pressure on popular streams that have suffered habitat damage, and to prohibit prospecting altogether on waters that hold threatened or endangered aquatic species.
Burr said the guidelines might restrict suction dredging to larger waterways such as the French Broad and Nolichucky rivers.
“We don’t have anything against the concept of recreational dredging if it’s done in a certain way,” said Burr. “These gold dredgers are not bad guys. A lot of them want regulations to keep the few bad apples from making them look bad.”
A prospector shows gold he found recently at Coker Creek. Participation in recreational gold mining spiked in 2011 when gold prices hit a historic high of $1,910 per ounce. (SAUL YOUNG/NEWS SENTINEL)
Bruce Ragon, environmental specialist for TDEC, said the traditional method of panning for gold, which involves disturbing the stream bottom with a shovel, might be prohibited in the smaller, headwater reaches of mountain streams.
“It’s certainly not our intent at the end of this process to restrict simple panning much at all,” Ragon said. “We’re talking real common sense stuff. The permit language will need to set boundaries for the recreator to know when they’re OK and when they’re not.”
State officials are drafting the new guidelines in consultation with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and representatives from the Coker Creek Chapter of the Gold Prospectors Association of America. The proposed permit could go on public notice as soon as this fall, with an official permit issued possibly in 2015.
TWRA was alerted to the adverse impact of mechanical gold mining last summer when the agency received complaints from fishermen and swimmers that suction dredges were excavating large holes in the bottom of the Little River downstream from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (where mining is off limits).
David McKinney, chief of environmental services for TWRA, said that incident underscored the fact that while the Tennessee Water Quality Control Act requires a permit for construction projects that make physical alterations to a stream, there are no guidelines that specifically address the impact of recreational gold mining.
“What happened last summer on the Little River was new to our experience,” McKinney said. “We knew there was gold mining on Coker Creek, but in general, that wasn’t an issue.”
Veins of gold embedded in a quartz rock that was found by a prospecto in Coker Creek earlier this year. (SAUL YOUNG/NEWS SENTINEL)
All that glitters
Nancy Dalton, tourism coordinator for the Tennessee Overhill Heritage Association, said the region’s reputation for gold mining appears to be growing.
“People come to stay at the campsites and cabins at Coker Creek and they want to pan for gold,” Dalton said. “It’s more popular now than it has been in several years.”
Participation in recreational gold mining spiked in 2011 when gold prices hit a historic high of $1,910 per ounce. Most local prospectors agree that the popularity of TV reality shows that feature small-scale mining also has fueled interest.
As state environmental officials draft the new guidelines, prospectors continue to flock to Coker Creek and the Tellico River, Tennessee’s two most popular streams for gold mining. Both streams are in the Tellico Ranger District at the south end of the Cherokee National Forest.
Forest supervisors have for years implemented their own set of guidelines on panning and gold dredging on Tellico and Coker Creek. Should the state’s recreational mining permit prove more stringent than the forest service’s, the forest service will adjust its rules accordingly, said Katherine Foster, Tellico District ranger.
“TDEC has the delegated authority to implement the Clean Water Act,” Foster said. “We will go where they go.”
Mark Sandberg prospects for gold using a suction dredge last month in Coker Creek. The Tennessee Department of Conservation is in the process of drafting a general permit that would regulate where and how people mine for gold. (SAUL YOUNG/NEWS SENTINEL)
Searching for color
Under Cherokee National Forest guidelines, mining is not allowed in designated wilderness areas in the Tellico Ranger District, and prospectors are instructed to leave stream banks and vegetation undisturbed. Panners also are instructed to fill in holes shoveled in the stream bed, and to scatter rocks and debris to leave the area looking natural.
The use of motorized equipment — including suction dredgers — is allowed only on designated sections of Tellico River and Coker Creek, with Coker Creek closed to motorized mining for much of the year. The use of hydraulic mining such as highbanking, which washes materials from the stream bank into the water, also is prohibited on the Tellico Ranger District.
And new for 2013, a permit is required for gold panning as well as dredging.
“At one point last year we were seeing higher compliance from the suction dredgers than the panners,” said Foster. “That’s happening less and less as word gets out and partners like the local chapter of the Gold Prospectors Association of America and the Coker Creek Welcome Center help spread the word.”
With approximately 240 members, the Coker Creek Chapter of the Gold Prospectors Association of America serves as the main lobby for recreational gold mining in Tennessee. Their president, Chuck Pharis, lived in California and Alaska before moving to Turtletown, Tenn., a few years ago.
He has 45 years of experience in recreational and commercial gold mining.
“The majority of prospectors in Tennessee are just families who want to go out and find a little color — maybe a glass vial with a few dollars’ worth of gold,” Pharis said.
“We agree we need recreational prospecting rules and regulations in writing. We know we’re going to get a lot of restrictions on suction dredging; we just hope they don’t over-restrict us when it comes to panning.”