opinion

Opportunity Lost

Stephen Yagielowicz
Complacency — that "take it easy, it's all going to be ok" attitude, which is at the heart of so much "change" in America these days, has taken another victim. On Aug. 6, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger put an end to more than 160 years of the state's heritage by banning suction dredging — a form of gold mining that represents the best chance "the little guy" has of making a living from small-scale gold mining today.

This move sounds a death knell for the independent miner and the end of a heritage that spawned one of the largest mass migrations in human history: the Gold Rush. It wasn't the first time such legislation landed on his desk; but this time, for reasons political, it was signed. While I won't get into the minutiae of the issues, I will use them as an example of relevance to the industry today.

As some of my readers may recall, I own a suction-dredging operation; and now with the stroke of a pen, the "Governator" has taken thousands and thousands of dollars that I've invested and tossed it right down the drain. Add in the countless hours of backbreaking labor and late nights learning my craft as a prospector, and you can see that this latest legislation represents a substantial personal loss to me, as well as to hundreds of other small-scale gold miners, who will now be shutting down their operations.

More companies are closing — and for reasons that have nothing to do with the economy.

And this can't come at a worse time, given the overall economy (and California's in particular). This law affects hard-working folks that are pulling real value right out of the ground, making a living off of their brains and brawn by actually generating — and not merely "passing along" — true "wealth."

Most operations that will be affected are run by lone individuals or two-to-four man teams, many of whom may find several hundred dollars worth of gold or more over the course of one weekend — while not covering their gasoline expenses the next weekend. These are not "large operations raping the wilderness," but common folks trying to put beans on the table — and doing so without relying on anyone else for a handout.

At the end of the day, however, a law is a piece of paper that isn't always just and has no meaning unless it's enforced.

In mid-July, I attended our annual gathering of the miners out on the Trinity River — perhaps the last time that dredges will ever operate openly on that river. I say "openly" because our holdings at Steiner Flat are more readily accessible than other parts of the river and its tributaries and are thus, popular with rafters and fisherman and the Fish & Game warden.

Operations out in the back country, however, are another matter. There is nothing as ornery as a miner with a producing hole, and the common sentiment at the gathering was "they'll have to come out and forcibly remove me from my diggings."

But will they?

One miner I talked to told me about signs he already had printed up asking readers if enforcing this law is worth their life. By now, he'll have posted them around his diggings — and his warning is as serious as a heart attack. The guys on the ground working for the relevant law enforcement agencies know many of the miners and who is working where; and I believe they will wisely avoid visiting some areas. Seriously, getting shot by a pissed-off retiree with a sluice box full of nuggets isn't how you want to end your day — and these guys know it would be easy to leave someone under a tailing pile without being seen.

The reality of the state's inability to enforce compliance with this law, nor the reality of the facts surrounding both sides of the dredging issue, stopped this from happening; it is all the result of casino-fed tribal interests outspending miners and land-rights advocates over years and years of litigation.

Miners, cowboys and Indians still fight it out in the West; it's just usually limited to the courtroom these days — and quite often, the Indians win.

Me, I'm one of those law abiding guys, who now has a large, complicated and expensive piece of gold mining equipment sitting in his garage, which will likely never again be used for its intended purpose — unless my lovely wife wants to revisit Alaska.

Of course, I have considered how I could remove the sluice and add control surfaces to the dredge; I could add some seating and then flip the power jets around to use as a propulsion system. I bet it would be ridiculously fast, quite unsafe and likely to get me arrested for rocketing around on one of the local lakes with it. But it would be a blast.

Sure, I still have my electronics and other prospecting and mining equipment, but for actual production on my current properties, the dredge was the way to go, and its passing marks a sad milestone in mining history.

And the punch line to this joke? This legislation coincided with my receiving of a county tax bill for my mining properties.

I tell you this story because the parallels to adult are striking: a legal enterprise, beset by passionate, well-funded and well-organized opponents, struggles to survive — and does so through a variety of challenges and tough economic times — but is finally overcome by persistent forces of change that it could no longer resist.

Having "right" and "freedom" on our side had nothing to do with the outcome.

The fact that once dredging was outlawed, only outlaws would go dredging didn't matter — paralleling the overseas migration of adult production in the event of U.S. prohibition, where these companies would operate beyond the reach of U.S. laws — nor did the economic impact matter. What mattered was that the other team was better organized and enjoyed tribal legal protections that incentivize litigation for profit and create economic barriers to opponents, which allowed them to simply outspend us, and in a way that let them distort the facts while pushing their agenda. This is the same approach taken by porn haters who want to see the FDA regulate adult entertainment as "a harmful drug."

And one of the key factors that enabled it was apathy among the people most affected: miners who felt their enemies would never be able to change the law, or who felt others would bear the burden of fighting off those enemies. Many miners left the fight up to various advocate organizations like the New ‘49ers and Public Lands for the People, and did nothing to support those organizations. Times are tough, after all.

I was somewhat engaged in the political process over this issue — but not nearly as much as I could or should have been. And for that, I am sorry — it has cost me.

In adult, the Association of Sites Advocating Child Protection (ASACP) and the Free Speech Coalition (FSC) serve as the vanguards of our freedoms, and many operators seem quite content to let these organizations do all the heavy lifting in Sacramento, Washington and beyond; yet these same operators won't give back a percentage of the earnings enabled by the work of these groups, or the donations that ensure these organization's ongoing survival and continued effectiveness. But hey, times are tough.

Well, for a lot of California's smallest miners, times are no longer tough — they're over.

I hope this is a lesson that California's producers of adult entertainment, regardless of their size — and indeed, all companies involved in this industry, regardless of their location — can learn from and see the need to support the organizations that enable us to operate and make a living, and of getting personally involved in the fight to protect what we believe in. Get involved, and protect your business interests.

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