"L.A. Miner" Puts Spotlight on San Gabriel Prospectors

A recent post on LAist highlighted a new documentary short called “L.A. Miner,” which tells the story of Patrick Blankenship, a gold-panner in the San Gabriel Mountains, and several of his prospecting companions.

The film itself tells a fascinating story and is beautifully shot, and at the beginning of the film, Patrick notes that mechanized mining and prospecting are illegal. What the film fails to point out, however, is that all forms of mining operations are prohibited in the Angeles National Forest / San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, motorized or not. Current mining policy states “All mining operations (location of mining claims, prospecting, and mining, including panning, sluicing, and dredging) under the 1872 Mining Law are prohibited within withdrawn areas of the Angeles National Forest … National Forest System lands within the East Fork of the San Gabriel River are not open to prospecting or any other mining operations.”


screengrab from “L.A. Miner”

The documentary does not mention where, exactly, they shot – but anyone who’s spent time in the San Gabriels can immediately recognize the area as the East Fork of the San Gabriel River. In addition to having restrictions against this mining activity, the majority of the river lies within the boundaries of the Sheep Mountain Wilderness, a federally designated wilderness area that has some of the strongest protections afforded by Congress. During the film, we see people:

  • Carry firearms
  • Smoke marijuana
  • Prospect in the San Gabriel River
  • Alter the flow of the San Gabriel River
  • Destroy rocks with pickaxes

ALL of these activities are illegal and because the land is in a federally designated wilderness, there are additional violations of the law on display, including building a shelter, (presumably) staying in the wilderness for more than 21 days, building a fire, and even using a cart or wheelbarrow (!).

Correction: firearms are not blanket prohibited in all Wilderness areas, but they are usually restricted. We are currently waiting to hear back from the Rangers’ office for specific guidelines in the Sheep Mountain Wilderness but it appears that outside the shooting ranges, firearms are only allowed for hunting and only during hunting seasons and a valid hunting license is required.


Sluicing in “L.A. Miner.” Screenshot.


Campfire in “L.A. Miner.” Screenshot.


Firearm in “L.A. Miner.” Screenshot.


Landscape destruction in “L.A. Miner.” Screenshot.

The idea that non-motorized prospecting is allowed in the East Fork is unfortunately a very common misconception – due to low fines and an underfunded agency that can’t effectively enforce these laws in the area. Although the Wilderness designation has been present since 1984, I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the people portrayed in the film that they were not aware of the full scope of the mining ban. However, the East Fork of the San Gabriel River is a perennially over-used area (it was given a very unfavorable spotlight in a recent L.A. Times article about the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument), and the prospectors portrayed here are certainly not helping that situation whether they’re aware of the laws or not.

The River is home to extremely threatened species like the Santa Ana Sucker, and building dams in the river – whether it’s for sluicing or bathing – can reduce its already tiny habitat. The ‘gold fever’ fights between prospectors talked about in the film can endanger people who are responsibly enjoying the wilderness and create an atmosphere of lawlessness that encourages drug abuse and further violence. Trash, mining refuse, and human waste pollutes the river, and with 66 wildfires currently burning 1.7 million acres of the West, I don’t think I need to mention how dangerous campfires are in the rugged and remote canyon of the East Fork.

We at Modern Hiker believe that everyone who enjoys the outdoors should be allowed to enjoy it in whatever way speaks to them, but that enjoyment must be done responsibly and within the letter of the laws set up to protect these fragile landscapes. I worry that films like this, which portray the prospectors as romanticized classic Western outcasts searching for meaning, will only encourage others to follow in this illegal and destructive activity in one of the most beautiful and iconic parts of the San Gabriel Mountains.

We reached out to the filmmaker Thomas R. Wood on August 27th. We are still awaiting his response.

Although Forest Service staff at the Arcadia HQ informed me via phone that mining and prospecting is prohibited in the East Fork, Forest Service rangers at the Angeles National Forest / San Gabriel Mountains National Monument have not yet responded to requests to clarify their policy. We will update the post as soon as we hear from the either party.

East Fork prospecting enthusiast Matthew McAuliffe contacted me directly and I offered him this space for a response. Here it is, presented without comment, endorsement, or edits:

Hello modern hiker I am writing this to you in response to the “ LA miner” tidbit that was posted yesterday, and the swirling drama and misconceptions regarding prospectors and miners amongst our community. Let me paint a vivid picture for you folks; prospecting is what made California what it is today-there is no if ands or buts about it. The gold rush is what built California that we know today. (Myself) prospecting has saved my life, I am an avid hiker myself, being a prospector you need to hike to remote locations to find better ground to dig. I am also an avid fisherman and outdoors type of person who does love our environment. The east fork San Gabriels is where I grew up, I spent most of my outdoor time hiking through these mountains in search of remote hiking destinations, un touched fishing holes and gold as well. The people viewed in this video need a little credit as I will withhold their names for security purposes.

Pat the lead star in this short film is a solid guy, spends most of his time working on exotic cars and just received his BA in chemistry. As for some explicatives in the movie, carrying a firearm in the national forest is merely for protection, I have spent a hefty amount of time in the San Gabriels and have been stalked by countless cats. It is for safety purposes only. Others viewed in this film, the guy and his wife on the trail. This man who has since passed away a couple months ago would give the shirt off his back for any hiker on the trail. He has given water and food to countless dehydrated and lost hikers. Finally the Man with the pick axe. This man has saved countless hikers on this trail from certain demise. Last june he saved a hiker and his dog. The man did not realize his dogs paws were melting on the hot rocks on the trail. He took it upon himself to sling this dog over his shoulder and carry him down to the parking lot. This was from the 3.5 mile marker all the way down to the parking lot. He has also helped lost boy scouts separated from the group and countless hikers who were lost and sick from the heat. The point in all of this is to show the true beauty of the prospectors on the east fork san Gabriel. We also have designated trash clean up days with my prospecting club as well, we pull countless truck loads of trash down to dumpsters, remember we are in Los Angeles. Over 12 million people a year visit this destination seeing it is so close to the inner city.

Prospecting on the east fork san Gabriel river “ pre national monument” is not illegal, this “LA miner” video was shot before the implementation of this monument. Therefor any acts in this video are not illegal. Now, I will not bore you with all the legal mumbo jumbo on the monument and my views of Obama and Judy Chu for basically using a federal land grab to achieve personal gain from their agenda. Post monument, all mineral removal is forbidden and disturbance of land is as well. Who is to say the hikers and fisherman aren’t next, we all need to be on the same side here. The 1872 mining act is the law of land here in the prospecting world and for people who don’t know it do your research please. Education is key to this type of stuff, anybody can assume and believe propaganda but the law is the law. In 1928 the watershed act was implemented on the east fork san Gabriel river. Old mining activities we very crude and far from being refined. We no longer hydo hill sides or use mercury for the recovery of gold. The watershed act was put in place due to sediment run off into the orchards in Azusa due to hydo blasting the hill sides in the 20’s. This meant no claims were able to be staked on this river and therefore this was public lands. Public lands for the people has been fighting to keep public lands public and free for our public to use for a very long time now. Keep in mind people, what can’t be grown has to be mined! Our nation needs prospectors and miners for simple fact that we extract precious metals from our land, for cell phones, jewelry and many other items that we use on a daily basis. Myself and miners alike clean the river and pack out more trash than we can carry sometimes. This includes fishing weights lost by fisherman, gun casings and mercury from old miners with crude habits. The technology today for prospecting equipment is environmentally friendly, only capturing heavy metals and mercury. The drought that California has been suffering through is horrendous we all know this, previous studies on the santa ana sucker fish and dredging have been side by side for quite awhile. Due to the moratorium of dredging in 2009 the santa ana sucker has almost been put out of extinction. Miners create new feeding and spawning grounds for these fish, whether we are dredging or not, the san Gabriel river is at an all time low and we are the ones who break free food for these fish and create new grounds to spawn in. This is a scientifically proven facts folks. When the dredging moratorium was implemented in 2009 the state of California took a 60 million dollar hit in revenue. Miners ceased to spend money at local markets, gas stations, and supply houses. Many small business went under and the state suffered from this severely from the lack of revenue miners brought to our communities.

In closing I am trying to paint a better picture for you folks of who we are as miners and prospectors, we are just like you. We love spending time with our families in the outdoors, whether its panning for gold, fishing, hiking or picnicking in our local mountains. We are lovers of nature and respect the laws and try to reach out a helping hand to people who need it, ie. Lost hikers or people who need help in general. I hope this clears up some confusion on this video and who we are. I look forward to meeting some of you on the trail and I will always be there with a smile and reach out a helping hand to anybody in need. Growing up in Pasadena, the San Gabriels are my home and I love this majestic mountain range that I recreate in on a consistent basis. These mountains are for everybody but we need to respect them. Prospecting has saved my life as well, as a troubled youth I found peace in doing something different with my life. I found hiking and fishing, now gold prospecting. I love our San Gabriels and I wanted to clear the air with Modern hiker and your viewers, have a great day! Happy trails, may your packs be light, your pans full of gold.

KCET’s veteran environmental reporter Chris Clarke has also weighed in on the story. His article features quotes from the filmmaker and states “mining of any kind is illegal along the East Fork of the San Gabriel, and has been since well before the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument was established in 2014.”

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