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New gold rush sweeps across America
by Dominic Rushe

GOLD FEVER is gripping America again with record numbers of people taking to the hills and streams of California and other states hoping to strike it rich.

Membership of the Gold Prospectors of America Association has risen 20% in the past year, said general manager Ken Rucker.

The numbers of people registering claims for mineral rights has also shot up. For the past two years, mining claims in California, the most gold-rich state, have grown by more than 3,000. Another 1,173 claims were filed in the first three months of 2009 alone, government figures show.

However, the public figures don’t tell the full story because there are still parts of the US where anyone can prospect for gold without a claim.

Driven by the soaring price of gold, now fetching more than $900 an ounce, and the economic downturn, prospecting is booming in Alaska, Arizona, Washington state and Mexico. Would-be prospectors are flying in from all over the world in the hope of finding their fortune.

“All sorts of people are doing it,” said Rucker. “I’ve been out with five-year-old kids. One member is 94 years old. We have doctors, lawyers. We even had a guy from Nasa. He really was a rocket scientist.”

Not everyone is happy about the new gold rush. Some environmentalists argue that prospectors are destroying rivers in their hunt for treasure.

Pans, shovels and picks have given way to suction dredges as the preferred tool of the prospector. They suck up the river bottom, sort the gold out in a sluice and dump the leftover gravel, sand, and silt back in the river.

Critics charge that suction dredging disrupts fish spawning, muddies river water and can hurt or kill aquatic organisms in the river bottom.

There are seasonal limits on prospecting in many states and California is looking to tighten the rules. Rucker claims that far from harming rivers, prospecting can improve them by removing harmful metals like lead and mercury and breaking up river beds.

Mining companies account for the lion’s share of gold found in America, and most weekend prospectors cannot hope to earn a living.

Ron Larson, who works in the aerospace industry, has been prospecting for more than 20 years. Since 1999, when he staked his own claim in an area outside Seattle, Larson reckons he has found between six and eight ounces of gold.

“I wouldn’t make enough on my claim to pay my bills,” he said. “There are people who do quite well but a lot of people do it for the collecting.”

Whether the sums are small or not, though, “gold fever” is just as intoxicating as it was in the original 1849 gold rush, he said. “I've lost friends over gold, which is silly considering how small the amount of gold usually is.

“Some people get a little carried away with the ‘fever’ and think they will get rich if they drop everything and go into it full time, but most never find enough to eke out a living.”


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