Along California's picturesque Highway 49, aptly named for the famed miners of a time passed, most action these days involves tourists intent on finding the next great taste of wine, or hunting down a hidden gem in a local antique store.
Nestled in the foot hills of the towering Sierra, towns like Sutter Creek, Amador City and Angels Camp evoke a romantic past, with the only gold mining here now just a few people with pans. But for the first time since the 1950's, California's Mother Lode will have more than just a tourist draw, as an operating underground gold mine is set to open.
As prices of gold soar around the world, and even here on the left coast, mining begins to move forward. Sutter Gold Mine says it will be fully operational within 6 months and should pour its first gold bar within a year. Conservative estimates have the company believing it will pull at least 1,800 ounces of gold out of the ground each month, and that it is more than cost effective to reopen this mine, which has in parts been operational since before California was accepted into the Union.
While Sutter Gold successfully waded through the environmental regulation that exists in California these days, only one other mine in the region may also get the chance to open in the near future, and that is about 60 miles to the north in the Grass Valley area. There are at least 18 agencies that need to be satisfied before that can happen and that doesn't take into account city and county regulations/protections before a mine can begin the process of opening. That, and low gold prices in years past, have kept underground mining here nonexistent until now.
By law, the mining companies must set aside funds that would cover the cost of clean up in case of an environmental disaster, though this is not expected.
For the most part, locals seem to welcome the mines back, but only in small numbers since tourism has become such a backbone of the local economy.
However, even with the tourist dollar, a new highway bypass and the struggling economy have hit this area of rural California hard and as one woman from the area says, “we could use a few good jobs.”
Environmentalists like Dan Jacobson aren't so pleased with the prospect of miners back in the Mother Lode. He says new “gold” can be found in new, cleaner industries like eco-tourism. He says the area in recent years has drawn thousands of tourists for its hiking, biking, clean rivers and green way of life and all that will be threatened. Why go back to an era that did so much damage, he insists.
Officials at Sutter Gold Mine say techniques used today are cleaner than ever, with little connection to some of the harsh ways gold was extracted from rock in the past. One miner, who is fifth generation from these parts, says locals are excited about 100 new well-paying jobs and that because most will be filled by locals, keeping everything clean is personal.
So if you happen to get near this area, Highway 49 runs north and south through the heart of the foothills and east of the famed San Joaquin Valley. Wines and antiques are still waiting to be found, but now it appears what built the 'Gold Country,' and the rest of California, can once again be found too. Like it or not, there is gold in these hills.