A century and a half ago today, before he left for Ford’s Theater on the fateful evening of April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was thinking about California.

More precisely, California’s fabled Mother Lode was on his mind.  House Speaker Schuyler Colfax was about to travel west, and Lincoln asked him to carry greetings to the men working claims in the Sierra Nevada.

“Tell the miners from me, that I shall promote their interests to the utmost of my ability, because their prosperity is the prosperity of the nation … ,” Lincoln said.  “Don’t forget, Colfax, tell those miners that is my speech to them, which I send by you. Let me hear from you on the road, and I will telegraph you at San Francisco. Pleasant journey and good bye.” 

Many descendants, in spirit, of the prospectors of Lincoln’s day are before the California Supreme Court right now, attempting to keep the Golden State’s gold-mining heritage alive.

The case of California v. Rinehart highlights another example of California going the extra mile in the severity of its regulations against small business people.

At issue is California’s ban on a device that often offers the only financially feasible way to search for gold in streambeds – the suction dredge.

This machine has been described as a portable sluice box, with a lawnmower-engine pump that lifts and sifts sediment.

Prospectors – ranging from hobbyists to part-time entrepreneurs supplementing their income – say they love the outdoors and the environment, and suction dredging cleans streams and clears habitat for fish.  But environmental groups, claiming that fish-spawning beds are imperiled, have carried the day with California officialdom.

Other states address environmental concerns by setting time, place, and manner rules for suction dredging.  But no such flexibility for California.  Its “moratorium” essentially outlaws the pastime. As the Sacramento Bee’s Dan Walters has noted, the first version of this ban was added stealthily to the budget in 1999, apparently “because a high-ranking state Senate staffer wanted to stop a neighbor from dredging a creek that both shared.”

If California’s prohibition was confined to state waters, it might not be before the state’s high court right now.  Where state officials have overstepped is in thinking their edicts trump federal law on federal land.

U.S. mining law echoes our 16th President

Brandon Rinehart was collared by the state for suction dredging his federal mining claim in a Plumas National Forest streambed.  He is challenging his prosecution on the grounds that California is violating the federal Mining Act of 1872 – a measure that echoed Lincoln’s promise to “promote [miners’] interests to the utmost.”

“Federal law encourages the discovery and commercial extraction of mineral resources on federal lands,” says Jonathan Wood, a Pacific Legal Foundation attorney who represents the grass-roots membership organization, the Western Mining Alliance, as a friend of the court in the Rinehart case.  “Apparently, California disagrees with this policy.  The state’s permanent ban on the use of suction dredges amounts to outlawing the only practicable means to use federal streambed mining claims.

“Consequently, the state sets up a clear conflict with federal policy and, under the Supremacy Clause, state law must yield.”

After a California appellate court sided with Rinehart last year, ruling that he should be allowed to make his case that suction dredging is the only practical way for him to work his claim, the state appealed.  With the California Supreme Court agreeing to hear the matter, the stage is now set for a high-profile decision on how far a state can go to substitute its own will for federal rules on federal property.

Abraham Lincoln didn’t get the chance to telegraph Schuyler Colfax in San Francisco.  But if he had a message, today, for California, he might say that our prospectors shouldn’t be robbed of the opportunity to bellow out that resonant word that still graces our state seal: “Eureka!”

And he certainly would remind us that California can’t secede from compliance with federal law.