Despite price rise, there's no 21st-century Gold Rush in Calif.

By Dale Kasler
Sunday, January 23, 2011

SACRAMENTO - California is being left behind by the new Gold Rush.

Despite sky-high prices and the state's rich legacy, the gold industry here is mostly dormant. California trails the leading gold-producing state, Nevada, by a wide margin.

A California revival is hardly imminent. Companies trying to reopen old mines in Grass Valley and near Sutter Creek have slogged through years of red tape, and there are no guarantees of success. The Sutter Creek plan is at least a year away, and Grass Valley is several years from reopening.

Standing in the way: scarcity of capital and strict environmental standards.

There's a cultural issue, too. Old mining towns still embrace their Gold Rush roots but have become havens for tourists and retirees. Some residents aren't convinced that blasting through rock is compatible with boutiques and bed-and-breakfast spots.

In Grass Valley, for instance, a thriving high-tech industry has sprouted in a community where the high school sports teams are called the Miners. Emotions are mixed on the proposal by Emgold Mining of Vancouver, British Columbia, to reopen the old Idaho-Maryland Mine, which hasn't operated since 1956.

"The landscape of the community has changed," said Mayor Lisa Swarthout. "When it was an operating mine . . . it was pretty much in the middle of nowhere. The community has grown around it."

The allure of gold at more than $1,300 an ounce could bring about more mining. Sutter Gold Mining, which wants to reopen a mine that runs along Highway 49 near Sutter Creek, has said it's sitting on at least 223,000 ounces and maybe as many as 680,000 ounces.

At today's prices, that's a bounty of $300 million to $900 million.

Company executives say the price boom isn't a fluke. "The pieces seem to be in place, at least in my opinion, for continued strength in gold prices," Sutter Gold Mining's chief financial officer, Robert Hutmacher, said.

The question is whether California can cash in.

At its peak, in 1853, California produced more than 3 million ounces of gold. Last year's haul came to 161,000 ounces, says the National Mining Association. More than half of that came from a single open-pit mine in a remote area of Imperial County.

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