Recreational 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
In 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
In 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.