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Sulphur Creek was one of the first places gold miners struck it rich in the Klondike at the turn of the 20th century. Now, 120 years later, the same stream near Dawson City, Yukon, is the latest addition to a new, fish-friendly mining movement: a nonprofit is working with an Indigenous-owned mining company, along with major tech and jewelry companies, to squeeze a little more gold out of the creek while restoring the area to healthy salmon habitat.
The project, spearheaded by the Washington, DC–based NGO Resolve, aims to produce what the partners call Salmon Gold. Similar to conflict-free diamond projects, which aim to source gems without harming people, Salmon Gold operations recover precious metals while rehabilitating old mining sites for the sake of fish.
“The idea is you bring in foundation money and restore creeks over and above what government requires, so salmon and grayling can come back in,” explains Allen Edzerza, the principal of Cheona Metals, the mining company that worked on Sulphur Creek, and an elder in the Tahltan Nation of northwestern British Columbia. “It’s a way to go back into an area damaged 100 years ago and address the impacts.”
Stephen D’Esposito, Resolve’s president and CEO, came up with the idea after flying over the Dawson City area more than a decade ago. Looking out the window, he saw the “vast impacts” that gold mining had made on the landscape.
Most of the world’s gold comes from mines drilled into solid rock. But gold is also recovered using a technique called placer mining: miners use heavy machinery to remove the vegetation and topsoil and then sift and wash the underlying gravel and dirt looking for nuggets and flakes.
Placer mining is widespread in northern British Columbia, Yukon, and Alaska, with operations mostly focusing on river valleys. These are the most ecologically diverse and important habitats in the boreal forest, says Sebastian Jones, a fish, wildlife, and habitat analyst with the Yukon Conservation Society. This kind of mining disturbs wildlife and destroys habitat, and sediment from the mining activity spills into streams, making the water cloudy, Jones says. While most environmental groups consider placer mining less damaging than hard rock mining, “placer miners have an outsize impact to the size of their operations,” says Jones.
Placer miners are “supposed to restore the site to the condition they found it in,” says Jones. “But there’s about no inspection and no enforcement and so there’s no incentive beyond good will. The effects of mining are still plain 100 years later.”
“I knew if we could find a way to address the legacy impacts of placer mining, it could be a win, win, win,” says D’Esposito: gold buyers could get more responsibly sourced gold; salmon habitat could be restored; and the placer miners could feel better about their business.
D’Esposito decided to focus on older mine sites, so they could be cleaned up for good. When gold prices climb and as mining technology evolves, placer miners tend to rework old mine sites, hoping to find gold missed by previous efforts. “I know an area that’s been mined four times and put back together each time,” says Jones. “To have long-term impact you need to take the land out of circulation.” By squeezing the last gold out of old areas and restoring them to a high standard, Resolve and its partners aim to make it economically infeasible for anyone to rework those spots; by choosing areas with additional regulatory protections they also prevent reworking after restoration.
For its first project, Resolve partnered with Dean Race, a placer miner who had just finished mining a claim on a tributary of the Fortymile River in Alaska. The US Congress designated Fortymile and most of its tributaries a wild and scenic river, a protection that prevents a claim from being reworked after it is restored. In 2018, Resolve raised money from charities and companies, including the jeweler Tiffany & Co and the tech giant Apple, which uses small amounts of gold for conductors in phones and tablets.
In 2019, Race used the funds to restore the former mine site beyond the legal requirement, turning it into a park of diverse native species and recontouring the creek so it had the pools and fast-running shallow waters that salmon like. The restoration won a sustainable development award from the US Bureau of Land Management. During the rehabilitation, Race found just over 700 grams of gold, which he sold at market price (about US $34,000 in 2018) to Tiffany and Apple under the trademark Salmon Gold.
“Salmon Gold is an imaginative approach to a long-running and complex problem” of restoring old placer mine operations, says Jones. “It’s not a magic bullet, but I expect it is part of the solution.”
To date, the Salmon Gold program has funded five projects on three river systems: Fortymile and Gold Creek in Alaska, and Sulphur Creek in Yukon. They have 10 more projects slated for 2021 in Yukon, Alaska, and British Columbia. Apple and Tiffany are committed to funding the program in the short term, says D’Esposito. To make the effort sustainable long term, he hopes to secure permanent funding from government departments or charitable trusts. D’Esposito says he aims to sell Salmon Gold at a premium above market prices, which should enable more and larger projects.
Watershed-level restoration should help Edzerza fulfill his dream of returning salmon to Yukon’s Indian River, just downstream of Sulphur Creek, and on river systems across the north. “Salmon Gold embodies what our cultural heritage is all about,” Edzerza says. “It’s our sacred duty to preserve and protect the land and resources for future generations.”