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Oops! Film Inadvertently Exposes Mining Conflict in San Gabriels

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Prospector Patrick Blankenship shovels gravel into a submerged milk crate | Screen capture from L.A. Miner

A short documentary film on recreational gold prospecting in the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument is attracting a bit of attention for a reason its filmmaker didn't anticipate: prospecting in the Monument is illegal.

The 2014 film, Thomas R. Wood's L.A. Miner, follows young prospector Patrick Blankenship into the Angeles National Forest, where Blankenship sluices and pans for gold in a wild section of the East Fork of the San Gabriel River. Blankenship isn't alone up there: the East Fork is home to a number of small-scale prospectors, some of whom have been looking for gold in them there hills for decades.

Problem is, mining of any kind is illegal along the East Fork of the San Gabriel, and has been since well before the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument was established in 2014. And so L.A. Miner suddenly plays a bigger part in the San Gabriel Mountains recreational mining issue, revealing a land use conflict that's likely inevitable as more people try to use the protected area an hour's drive north of Los Angeles.

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Southern California journalist Casey Schreiner, who called attention to the issue Thursday on his website Modern Hiker, points out that the majority of the San Gabriel's East Fork is protected within the Sheep Mountain Wilderness. Schreiner also notes, via the Angeles National Forest's website, that the activity depicted in the film is expressly prohibited even outside the Sheep Mountain Wilderness:

 

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Blankenship does shovel work at a sluice box | Screen capture from L.A. Miner
 

In the film, Blankenship is shown sluicing within the San Gabriel River for gold nuggets, moving in-stream boulders, and otherwise altering the stream's flow. Other prospectors are depicted breaking rocks open with pickaxes, and one picturesque elderly miner is described as having lived in the area for decades, despite a 21-day limit on backcountry stays.

At the beginning of the film, Blankenship mentions a ban on motorized mining or prospecting within the East Fork area, which, while technically correct, is the sole mention of legality in the short film.

That, filmmaker Thomas Wood told KCET, is because Wood was unaware of the ban on mining and prospecting until Schreiner posted his reaction to the film on Modern Hiker.

"I don't think Patrick and I ever even discussed the legality of what he was doing," Wood told KCET Friday. "My goal as a filmmaker was to represent what Patrick and the other miners are doing. I certainly didn't intend to advocate that people engage in illegal activity."

Wood took pains to point out that despite the illegality of their pastime, the prospectors his film portrays aren't villains. "I can't tell you how many buckets of trash I've seen these guys haul out of the backcountry, a lot of which was left by weekend warrior hikers," said Wood. "They might be reclusive at first, but they'll help you out if you get in trouble up there; offer you food and water, that kind of thing."

The U.S. Forest Service hasn't banned mining in the East Fork without reason. The San Gabriel is critical habitat for the federally Threatened Santa Ana sucker, which is especially vulnerable to that diversions and siltation that even small-scale mining could cause in its native streams. And with the nation's second-largest city a short drive away, destructive activities such as small-scale mining could rapidly deprive other users of many of the values that prompted the landscape's protection in the first place.

This conflict, as inevitable as it may seem, could in theory prove more amenable to solution than many other similar arguments over the best use of public lands. "I'm reluctant to speak for any of the prospectors," Wood told KCET, "so I won't speculate about how they'll react to the news that prospecting on the East Fork is illegal. But it did seem to me that many of them have strong environmentalist feelings. They really seem to care about the landscape."

Blankenship echoes that sentiment in the film, claiming that the gold isn't really the reason he goes into the East Fork. "It's not about the gold," he tells Wood over a campfire. "It's not about the gold. It's about looking for the gold. Looking for the gold is totally worth it in and of itself. If you do it right, you're gazing back in time."

Ironically, controversy over Wood's film may force National Monument land managers to take a harder line on the activity he portrays. Recent and well-publicized funding shortfalls have prevented Angeles National Forest staff from upgrading protection in the new monument. But a straightforward violation of law gaining social media attention may force USFS's hand to step up enforcement.

If that happens, Wood hopes that people will remember that despite differences between prospectors and wilderness activists, we all have one thing in common: we're all heading into the hills looking for one kind of gold or another, tangible or intangible.

"It would be great if each side could avoid dehumanizing the other," Wood said. "Maybe having a real conversation where each side remembers the other side isn't that different."

That ship may have sailed, though, if some of the responses to Schreiner's post are any indication. As one critic of the prospectors said in a comment on on Schreiner's post, "Somewhere on the Crystal Lake web site there are photographs of the signs that used to be posted along the East Fork informing people that it is illegal and that it has been illegal since over a 100 years ago. All of the signs are stolen and destroyed by these illegal miners...they all know it's illegal. Many of them have been caught and run through the wants and warrants database and have been 'warned' endlessly, but because they only go to jail when they get violent and abusive against the rare forest person, they keep coming back."

Meanwhile, on Modern Hiker's Facebook page, defenders of recreational mining insist despite ironclad evidence that their pastime is legal in the East Fork.

We'll be keeping an eye on this issue as it develops.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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