GOLD BEACH, Ore. — The Curry County Planning Commission has rejected a local rancher’s proposal to remove 10,000 cubic yards of gravel from the lower Pistol River in southwest Oregon to stop flooding and erosion of surrounding farmland.
Ronald Adams applied for a conditional use permit in May to mine gravel from the coastal river, which provides essential habitat for threatened coho salmon.
Opponents argued Adams did not include sufficient details about the project or its impact on the environment, and the planning commission voted to deny his application Aug. 15.
The decision will be finalized at the next planning commission meeting Sept. 19. Adams said he plans to appeal.
Adams, 68, owns 117 acres of cattle pasture on both sides of the river near Gold Beach. He said the waterway “has been in disarray for many years” due to gravel washing downstream from the headwaters in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.
Not only is erosion threatening landowners’ property, but Adams said debris backed up underneath the Pistol River Bridge could result in costly damage as floodwaters rise.
“My neighbors on the south side of the river are going to lose all their bottomland if we don’t do anything about it,” Adams said. “Plus the water is not going to be able to flow under the bridge.”
Gravel mining has a long history in the Pistol River. Historically, gravel was extracted from the river and used for road projects — including construction of Highway 101, according to the planning commission staff report.
The same site was also approved to extract 50,000 cubic yards of gravel annually in 2003, though county approval was revoked two years later over tangles with state and federal permits.
The Pistol River is designated as essential salmon habitat by the Oregon Department of State Lands, which regulates in-stream work. Bob Lobdell, a natural resources coordinator for the state agency in Coos and Curry counties, said there has not been a new gravel removal permit issued on the Pistol River for at least 10 years.
Cameron La Follette, executive director of the Oregon Coast Alliance, said gravel is an important aquatic resource for salmon, providing spawning habitat for adults and rearing habitat for juveniles.
Adams’ plan did not include any information about the state of the Pistol River, La Follette said, or what kind of impact removing gravel would have on fish, vegetation and soil erosion.
“It isn’t wise to just go in and start mining gravel without knowing what the effects are going to be,” La Follette said. “A river is a sensitive system.”
What the Pistol River really needs, La Follette said, is for landowners and restoration specialists to collaborate and start seriously working on how the make the river healthier for everyone who depends on it, including farms and fish.
The U.S. Forest Service last conducted a watershed analysis for the Pistol River in 1998, showing degradation from both natural processes and human activity, such as building roads and logging. Figures cited in the analysis estimated that roads produced 32 times the amount of river sediment compared to undisturbed forestland, and logging increased sedimentation rates by 2.8 times.
The Pistol River Watershed Council wrote an action plan for the watershed in 2001, suggesting wetlands restoration, planting new riparian vegetation and road surveys, among other items, to make the river system healthier.
“Both of those (were written) a long time ago,” La Follette said. “The first order of business would be looking at any updating needs.”
Adams said the situation, however, is quickly becoming urgent. If something isn’t done soon, he predicted there could be “catastrophic” consequences as early as next year.
“I’ll do anything it takes to remedy this,” he said.