Prospectors, North Carolina land trust face off over access to gold

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CFACTOnce again, the arrogant do-gooders think they are the law prospectinguhwarrie

goldhillsRecre­ation­al prospec­tors, long accus­tomed to spend­ing their week­ends search­ing for gold in North Carolina’s Uwhar­rie Riv­er, are under fire by a local land trust, which claims own­er­ship of the riv­er bed.

The rise in the price of gold to its all-time high of $1,900 per ounce in 2011 proved irre­sistible to prospec­tors, who were lured to spots where their knowl­edge of local geol­o­gy told them that the cov­et­ed pre­cious met­al might be there for the tak­ing.  Even today, with the price of gold hov­er­ing just below $1,200 per ounce, adven­tur­ous souls are pre­pared to spend untold hours in places like the Uwhar­rie hop­ing that Lady Luck will come their way.

North Car­oli­na was the nation’s lead­ing gold-pro­duc­ing state through­out much of the 19th cen­tu­ry.  While the state has no more com­mer­cial gold mines, enter­pris­ing prospec­tors still like to try their hand in the Car­oli­na Slate Belt, a geo­log­ic for­ma­tion that cuts diag­o­nal­ly across the Carolinas.

One of their favorite spots lies 50 miles east of Char­lotte.  There, near the Low Water Bridge in Mont­gomery Coun­ty, the bot­tom of the Uwhar­rie is known to con­tain deposits of gold.  Not for noth­ing is a near­by town­ship named El Dorado.

Over time, prospec­tors have found that the most effi­cient way to extract gold from the Uwhar­rie is through a process known as suc­tion dredg­ing.  The suc­tion dredges used in the Uwhar­rie are small, hand-held devices sim­i­lar to those used in nau­ti­cal arche­ol­o­gy.  Some­times com­pared to under­wa­ter vac­u­um clean­ers, suc­tion dredges suck grav­el, dirt, and oth­er debris from the riverbed into sluice box­es that cap­ture the gold and dump the remain­ing mate­r­i­al back into the river.

Ownership of the riverbed

goldenriver-300x206In addi­tion to the long odds all prospec­tors face in search­ing for pre­cious met­als, those seek­ing gold at the bot­tom of the Uwhar­rie are now being con­front­ed by the Sal­is­bury, NC-based Land Trust of Cen­tral North Car­oli­na (Land Trust).  The Land Trust not only oppos­es suc­tion dredg­ing but also claims own­er­ship of the riverbed bor­der­ing a 1,300-acre prop­er­ty the group pur­chased in 2006-07.   Locat­ed at the Low Water Bridge, the Land Trust’s river­front prop­er­ty was bought with funds large­ly pro­vid­ed by the state’s Ecosys­tem Enhance­ment Pro­gram.  While not object­ing to what it describes as “low-impact recre­ation­al pan­ning,” the Land Trust remains adamant­ly opposed to suc­tion dredging.

If the Land Trust allowed any sort of activ­i­ty that had a neg­a­tive impact on the riv­er, we would be in vio­la­tion of our agree­ment with the state and with the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment (through the U.S. Army Corps of Engi­neers),” the group explains.  Lest any­one miss the mes­sage, the Land Trust has post­ed signs along a right of way lead­ing to the Uwhar­rie inform­ing prospec­tors that dredg­ing in the riverbed is prohibited.

The tract the Land Trust owns is pri­vate prop­er­ty, and like oth­er pri­vate­ly owned tracts on the Uwhar­rie, its deed clear­ly states that the prop­er­ty line ends at the river’s high-water mark.  In oth­er words, it does not extend into the riverbed.  Indeed, accord­ing to a Jan­u­ary 2013 report by the North Car­oli­na Gen­er­al Assem­bly, own­er­ship of riverbeds in the state was set­tled a long time ago:

North Car­oli­na gained own­er­ship of lands sub­merged beneath nav­i­ga­ble waters through the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence and vic­to­ry in the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War.” 

Note the Gen­er­al Assem­bly report’s use of the word “nav­i­ga­ble.”  The Uwhar­rie is nav­i­ga­ble and thus falls under the cat­e­go­ry of sub­merged lands owned by the state.  Some stretch­es of the riv­er pass through the Uwhar­rie Nation­al For­est, where the U.S. For­est Ser­vice, on ques­tion­able legal grounds, pro­hibits suc­tion dredg­ing.  But that is not the case for the stretch of the riv­er near the Low Water Bridge, where prospec­tors have been pan­ning and dredg­ing for gold for decades.  In fact, North Car­oli­na doesn’t even require a per­mit for recre­ation­al prospect­ing in nav­i­ga­ble waters, includ­ing suc­tion dredg­ing in the Uwharrie.

The Land Trust insists that it will allow only “very low impact hand pan­ning in streams on our prop­er­ties.”  But the Uwharrie’s riverbed, as the group’s deed and the Gen­er­al Assembly’s report make clear, is not on the Land Trust’s prop­er­ty.  The group is claim­ing own­er­ship of some­thing that is owned by some­one else, in this case, the state of North Carolina.

Threat of prosecution

LandTrustCNC-300x292In a Feb­ru­ary 20, 2015, email to prospec­tor John Moon, Jason Walser, the Land Trust’s exec­u­tive direc­tor, left no doubt about how far his group is will­ing to go.  “It is our opin­ion that suc­tion dredg­ing dis­rupts nat­ur­al process­es, alters the riverbed, and neg­a­tive­ly impacts over­all riv­er health,” he wrote.  “That is why we pro­hib­it, and intend to pros­e­cute, vio­la­tions of our pri­vate prop­er­ty own­er­ship of the land beneath the waters.”

Land trusts have grown in num­ber and influ­ence in recent decades, but only now are they com­ing under scruti­ny.  The relent­less harass­ment of Vir­ginia farmer Martha Bone­ta by the Pied­mont Envi­ron­men­tal Coun­cil prompt­ed the state ear­li­er this year to enact leg­is­la­tion sub­ject­ing land trusts to a long-over­due lev­el of account­abil­i­ty.  North Car­oli­na and oth­er states may want to fol­low in Virginia’s footsteps.