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For gold diggers, prospects are slim

Young prospectors pan for gold at Gold Prospecting Adventure in Jamestown, Calif.

TEXT OF STORY

Steve Chiotakis: Gold's been in the news a lot lately. There's its price for one thing; it's going for $973 bucks an ounce now. Then there are all the folks prospecting for the yellow stuff here in California. But if the promise of easy riches sounds too good to be true, at least in one popular mining area, it probably is. Here's Rico Gagliano.


Rico Gagliano: The Angeles National Forest is an hour's drive from Los Angeles, up twisty mountain roads. On a Tuesday morning, it's mostly empty. Except for a stretch along the San Gabriel River. That's where dozens of prospectors camp out just about every day.

Robert Herstrom is one of them:

Gagliano: So how long've you been doing this?

Robert Herstrom:Not very long, coupla months.

Gagliano: And how you doin'?

Herstrom:Not very good!

That's putting it mildly. After weeks of standing in the river, sifting soil through what's called a "sluice box," Herstrom says he's found a fraction of a gram of gold dust - not worth enough to pay for his trip here. He doesn't mind; he's retired.

Herstrom: It's just recreational. Somethin' to do. Stay out of watching TV.

He could be sincere. Or hiding a wounded ego. But one thing's sure: Lots of people have suddenly taken interest in this form of recreation. And some of them expect more than a good time.

Sherry Rollman is a public affairs officer for the Angeles National Forest. She says over the last few months, gold fever has led to phone calls like this:

Sherry Rollman: A gentleman from the East Coast said he'd spent the last of his savings on some mining equipment and wanted to know where he could go mining here on the Angeles National Forest.

This concerns Rollman. And not just because it's a kind of pathetic story.

Rollman: Unfortunately, all the lands on the Angeles were withdrawn from mineral entry by the 1928 mining act.

Which means it's illegal to take minerals out of this stretch of the San Gabriel River. The public parts of it, anyway. And the area is a patchwork of public and private land -- it's hard for prospectors to know when they've strayed from one to the other.

The Forest Service says they'll be taking a quote "closer look" to see if regulations are being violated. For now, though, prospectors keep hunting for treasure.

One of 'em, an unemployed machinist named Don, uses this dredger. It sucks soil -- hopefully along with gold -- from the river bottom. Even with the dredge, Don says he only finds an ounce a year. But I understand the allure when he shows off some of his stash.

Don:I find a whole bunch of that.

Gagliano: Kind of looks like a test tube full of like, gold flakes.

Don:But little of this.

Gagliano: Wow, now those are the size of, like, pebbles. That's gorgeous stuff. You wanna give me one of those?

Don:No thanks.

In Los Angeles, I'm Rico Gagliano for Marketplace.

About the author

Rico Gagliano is the host of Dinner Party Download.

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