This year marks the 170th anniversary of the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, north of Sacramento. The legacy of the Gold Rush is inescapable in Northern California, particularly in Mariposa County. It’s visible in mining museums, at roadside historical sites and in county buildings on Bullion Street.
What hasn’t persisted in this region is gold mining itself. But one Canadian company wants to change that.
Sam Long works on a few thousand acres in the Mariposa County foothills. He doesn’t have to go far to be reminded of the Gold Rush.
“We’ve recovered old wheelbarrows, old shovels and picks, steel lunchboxes, old ore carts," he says. "There was even a bit of railway track where they used to push through carts of rock."
After 170 years, Long is here to reignite this historic industry. He’s the exploration manager for Fremont Gold Mining, a small company prospecting for gold on a hillside overlooking Lake McClure. Inside a warehouse, geologists examine rock samples, and outside, another cuts rock with a saw.
“Ultimately the goal is to have a mine and to create good jobs for people throughout the county, throughout the state,” Long says.
Fremont Gold’s property lies along the famed Mother Lode Gold Belt, which stretches 120 miles from Mariposa north into El Dorado County. Since the 1840s, it’s been home to hundreds of gold mines that have extracted millions of ounces of the mineral. By some estimates, however, literally tons of gold still lie buried here. Fremont Gold hopes to make those potential resources a reality -- but history suggests it's likely to face an uphill battle.
To be clear, Fremont Gold Mining is not actually mining. It’s exploring. Its job is to determine how much gold its property contains, which involves surveying, sampling and drilling. After exploring a quarter of its property, the company estimates it has already defined close to 900,000 ounces of gold -- far more than what was already extracted during 100 years of mining on the property.
If so much gold remains in the hills here, exploration companies must be stampeding back to the Mother Lode, right? Nope. Throughout the five counties containing the gold belt, only one gold mine is active, and only intermittently. Other exploration projects have folded, too.
John Clinkenbeard with the California Geological Survey says that’s because the mineral itself is only one component of an economical operation.
“Gold production increases and decreases with the economy and with wars,” he says. “A whole lot of things influence what happened [since the Gold Rush]."
Although the price of gold has dropped from its peak in 2012, after inflation it’s still about 2.5 times higher than its value in the 1840s. But gold operations themselves have become much pricier since then, with more advanced technology and higher labor costs.
Vishal Gupta is CEO of California Gold Mining, the Canadian company that owns Fremont Gold. He says another reason gold mining slowed is because this is California, ground zero for environmentalism.
"I won’t say there was a moratorium on any gold mining since the Second World War,” he says, “but it had become increasingly difficult for gold and other commodity-based companies to do any sort of a business within the state."
Pat Perez, with the California Department of Conservation, says that’s for good reason. In the 19th century, long before the California Environmental Quality Act and the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act, environmental accountability simply wasn’t a priority.
“You simply mined, and then when you were done you walked away, and you left the land with significant scars and in some cases environmental challenges and public hazards,” Perez says.
Mariposa County officials, who handle local permitting, are well aware of those scars.
Associate planner Steve Engfer points to many practices he hopes remain in the past.
There was “hydraulic mining, where they would mine whole mountainsides and all the silt and everything just washes downstream, river amalgamation processes where there were chemicals involved that weren’t as regulated as we would have today,” he says. And there were many others. Engfer believes with diligence, gold mining can be both environmentally responsible and a driver of economic growth.
County resident Les Overstreet isn’t convinced either is true.
He lives a few miles away from the Fremont Gold site and says he plans to push back against any plans to develop a mine. He worries about how it could strain local infrastructure and water resources.
“What’s going to happen environmentally to the wild and scenic Merced River, and then also the lake?” he asks. “It’d be very difficult to keep things like surfactants out the lake.”
Fremont Gold expects to spend another few years drilling and surveying. A mine would be many years further down the road, after more permitting and opportunity for public comment.