Economy and Environment Collide in Modern-Day California Gold Rush

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The American River near Sutter’s Mill, where the California Gold Rush began in 1848. Image credit: Ken Lund.

The motivation that originally provoked the California Gold Rush back in the 1800s is repeating itselfor at least a portion of itaccording to a story reported by National Public Story. And there’s a reminiscent wave of people heading toward California’s riverbanks. Apparently, memberships in gold prospecting clubs increased to 85 percent in California last year. A Quick Fact appears at a small type size on GoldFeverProspecting.com but it screams loudly:

Mining is HOT! More than 2,000 new mining claims were filed in California this year, according to state records. In 2005, there were 16,829 claims; now there are 24,905. It costs just $170 to record a new claim.

While such language incites gold fevercompounded by the currently high price of gold, nearly $1,000 an ouncethe comments to National Public Radio’s story resounded with a strong environmental message. Listener Bill Smith summed up the concern this way:

Panning for gold may make someone a couple of bucks on the weekend, but it leaves a legacy of environmental degradation.

Echoing California’s current gold rush are events in Mongolia, as reported in a similar story by NPR. Some 100,000 herders have released their flocks to take on the emerging role of ninja miners, a term coined because of the plastic gold-panning containers on their backs, which make them appear like TV’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

In contrast to the flocking California gold-miners, the Mongolian herders-turned-miners produce more gold than the formal industrial mining sector, which alone contributes more than 20 percent of Mongolia’s gross domestic product. But with the gold-digging productivity comes the visibly negative impact on Mongolia’s landscape. Former Mongolian herder-turned-protester Dechindorj Ganbold rallies to return to how land and life were, before gold fever:

We’ve lost our grassland. We’ve lost everything. How unfortunate we are that we had gold in our land. Without gold, our rivers would flow and life would be normal. Now there’s no way back.

Polarizing viewsfrom both sides of the oceanrecount the dual, dominant gold-rush themes of economy and environment. The discovery of commercial amounts of gold easily built the former of a vibrant economy. It’s the latter of a fragile environment that is easily affected.

Nate Burgos

Comments (4)

  1. Amy Edwards-Patterson says:

    Nate,
    Thanks for sharing! I have some students from Mongolia, and it’s interesting to read about this impact on the environment–and even more than that, the impact on the people and their way of life. I’m curious… why are these “ninja” miners producing more gold than the former mining sector? I assumed excessive government restrictions or regulations were involved, but the NPR piece mentions the government “turns a blind eye” to the illegal mining.

  2. Nate Burgos says:

    Good to hear from you Amy! Thanks for your thoughts. I don’t know why the miners contribute more to Mongolia’s gold production, but I’m aligned to your rationale.

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