The magnitude of mining’s impact on the people and places of the Sierra is staggering, covering the ancestral lands of numerous First Nations, millions of acres, and hundreds of lakes, rivers, wetlands, and reservoirs. The Sierra Fund’s focus on multi-benefit pilot projects that demonstrate effective methods and techniques for monitoring, assessment and restoration of mine-impacted lands in the Sierra Nevada provide replicable models that local, state and federal landowners can implement to address mining’s toxic legacy.

The Sierra Fund has been leading the charge to address the legacy of Gold Rush impacts on California’s headwater ecosystems. Mine-impacted lands, when left un-remediated pose a threat to our ecosystems and leach toxics into our soil and water, with implications from the Sierra to the sea. We ask that the state of California and the nation stand with us to recognize and remediate the lasting impact of California’s 19th century Gold Rush.


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The State of California burst into existence with the discovery of gold in 1848 along the western slope of the Sierra Nevada on ancestral homelands of First Nation people. As word spread across America and the world in 1849, hopeful prospectors swarmed up the Sacramento River to the goldfields in the Sierra.

Today, the region is riddled with abandoned mine shafts and tunnels—and other dangers that may not be apparent at first glance. The mining and mineral-processing practices of the past were not subject to today’s environmental standards and have resulted in extensive contamination to the land and waters of California.

Using techniques including placer, hard rock, and hydraulic mining, millions of ounces of gold were extracted from the Sierra Nevada “Mother Lode” during the 19th and 20th centuries. Mining practices commonly included extensive use of mercury, millions of pounds of which still contaminate the landscape. 

Much of the land impacted by these activities is now publicly owned by state, federal, and local governments. Today, there are more than 40,000 abandoned mine sites in California, according to the California Department of Conservation (CDOC), many of which are concentrated at the epicenter of the California Gold Rush, the Sierra Nevada region. Abandoned mines have left behind toxic pits and acid mine drainage. Naturally occurring metals and minerals, like lead, arsenic and asbestos, were disturbed, crushed, and distributed throughout the region. The CDOC estimates that of the abandoned mines in California, 84% present physical safety hazards and 11% present environmental hazards (CDOD, 2000).