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Impact of the Klondike Gold Rush

The rush for gold did not occur until the fall of 1897 when it became sudden and overwhelming. At the beginning of 1896, only several thousand non-Indian miners, traders and missionaries resided in the Yukon. Two years later, the territory was overrun with tens of thousands of newcomers who quickly wrought serious and far ranging changes to the land. The federal government, concerned primarily with maximizing resources extraction, did little to ensure environmental protection.

Sadly, and for the most part, Alaska and the Klondike were places to exploit, reap the harvest and ignore the consequences, so few bothered to make observations about the environmental impact. Gold seekers flooded into Alaska and the Yukon bringing with them a "get rich quick" attitude, with no concern for the environment. Existing laws offered little environmental protection. Miners risked their lives to reach the golden promise, and "anything that stood in the way was pushed aside or destroyed. Newcomers were far too occupied with the race for gold to entertain any thoughts that they may be having a negative impact on the landscape.

In Canada, the Minister of Indian Affairs took the view that the Yukon gold rush would be a short lived event. He argued that the Yukon Territory was "not the same as any other gold mining country in the world and the difference consists in the fact that it is good for nothing except mining which in all probability will be temporary. The miners were not going to reinvest their profits in developing the country. There would be no long term benefit for Canada unless some of the profits were skimmed off at once."

The government continued a long lasting policy of issuing free miners certificates which opened the Yukon to unlimited numbers of prospectors. Once a claim was established, a miner had unrestricted use of the site, including timber and water resources. The government's primary concern was to transform the Yukon into a major mining center that would generate maximum revenues for the federal treasury.

However, the arrival of tens of thousands of gold-seekers and adventurers caught government officials off guard. They had not anticipated the influx and effect of large numbers of newcomers.  Necessary conservation policies were ignored.  Unforeseen, the government's pro-development attitude of maximizing resource extraction would result in irremediable changes to the environment.

While most accounts of the frenetic gold rush days are portrayed in a positive light, there is one area in which the discovery of gold played a most destructive role – its impact on the Alaskan and Yukon environment.  The gold rush brought huge environmental changes in the landscape in a relatively small amount of time. For the first time in Alaska's and the Yukon's history, native flora and fauna ecosystems were threatened with destruction.  Features of the land millions of years in the making were all but decimated in several short years.   A multitude of environmental problems arose – soil erosion, salinity, water quality decline, growth of noxious weeds and extinction of native animals, just to name a few. Observers at the time commented on the way miners ravaged the landscape, upturning and razing the land, then when it was rendered barren, moving on to the next site to repeat the process. 

Prior to the gold rush the forests had been a backdrop, subject only to natural cycles of disease, fires and wind damage. Cutting had been limited due to the modest requirements of the indigenous peoples and the few non-native settlers.  Suddenly, the forest became an extraordinarily valuable commodity to the gold seekers and their settlements. As well as being the major source of fuel for cooking, heating, and melting permafrost, its timbers were vital for boat construction, cabin and barrack buildings, dams, dredges, flumes, railway ties, roads, steamship fuel and underground mining supports.

Using the Skagway route to Dawson, incoming prospectors, miners, tradesmen, officials, police, wives, children and other hangers-on with all their paraphernalia traveled on flotillas of rafts and boats, some capable of holding as many as 300 people. Every so often the flotillas would stop and the passengers would go off into the forest to make fires for warmth, comfort and cooking. Many such fires were left burning either by accident or deliberately for the next group of gold-seekers coming down the river.  As a consequence, many of those untended fires blew into blazes and, coupled with logging deforestation, destroyed countless numbers of trees which in turn, resulted in an immediate loss of wildlife habitat.

By 1898 timber was already scarce at Lakes Tagish, Bennett and Marsh.

Although most western mining by the 1890s was heavily industrialized, dependent on capital investments in machinery and processing plants, mining in the broad basin carved by the Yukon River remained surface, streamside, placer mining.  A miner needed very little initial wealth to seek and mine placer gold.  With a few hand tools and a willingness to labor in the earth, gold could be his.  Miners in the Yukon and Alaska tore up and muddied creeks, stripped hillsides of timber, and depleted wildlife populations.  The crystalline waters were made thick and foul with gold-washing.  The impact of placer mining on riparian vegetation in the creeks resulted in a decline in various fish species.  Some of the ground has been worked three times - first by individual miners, next by early dredges, and later by more modern dredges. 

The extraction of gold by large scale hydraulic mining, drift mining and dredging after 1896 caused immediate and irreversible detrimental effects. Mining also produced waste in the form of toxic runoff, debris, and sediment - something nineteenth century miners never considered. In order to produce gold, jobs, wages, and waste, a mine consumed nature in many forms, including chemicals, earth, vegetation, fossil fuels, and large pieces of the landscape itself. The erection of dams prevented the migration of salmon and other fish. Mining practices also produced long term contamination of water to the food chain in the Klondike Valley by the use of mercury. Wherever gold mining was profitable, miners used a variety of technologies, changing the flow of rivers and streams.

The easily accessible gold in Alaska was soon exhausted, but not before the miners depleted entire forests for fuel and building material and permanently altered the landscape.

The biggest losers were the Natives. For them, the gold rush meant a drastic reduction in moose, caribou, and small game as prospectors hunted these for food. In many areas, gold mining resulted in destruction of salmon streams. Contact with white men also had consequences like drinking and disease.  Prior to the 1896 gold rush the indigenous communities had lived in harmony with the land for centuries. The impact of the gold rush on the Native peoples of the region was considerable. The Tlingit and the Koyukon peoples prospered in the short term from their work as guides, packers and from selling food and supplies to the prospectors. In the longer term, however, the Han people living in the Klondike region especially suffered from the environmental damage of the gold mining on the rivers and forests, as well as from the creation of Dawson.  The Han, who fished at the site of Dawson, experienced chaos and dislocation. Within a very brief time, the Han banks and their neighbors gained and then lost a large and profitable market for their meat and fish, and with it a key source of cash and trade goods. Depleted wildlife populations disrupted Native subsistence patterns, and the white hunters and fishers who remained in the goldfields competed with Natives for those resources that remained, for specific fishing sites, and for the right to sell food to miners. Their population had already begun to decline after the discovery of gold along Fortymile River in the 1880s but dropped catastrophically after their move to the reserve, a result of the contaminated water supply and smallpox. The Han found only few ways to benefit economically from the gold rush but their fishing and hunting grounds were largely destroyed.

There were also some subtle side-effects.  In the United States the output of Klondike and later of Alaska gold from Nome meant the end of the depression.  North of the border, the transcontinental rail traffic that the Klondike inspired became an important factor in the great western Canadian boom that ran unfettered for more than a decade.




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