Conservationists, Forest Service buy up mines
Miller, Capital Press 10/19/08
(AP)-- Hundreds of mining claims deep in Idaho's Frank Church
River of No Return Wilderness are now in public hands, a move
officials say will protect drainages where salmon return annually
while keeping a winding dirt road open for the curious to explore
ramshackle cabins and other mining artifacts brought in by
prospectors a century ago.
Thunder Mountain, as the area is known, is the latest example of
private property owners, conservation groups and the U.S. Forest
Service in Idaho, Colorado and Montana inking million-dollar
compacts to preserve Rocky Mountain backcountry.
Sometimes, the transactions halt further mining, as with Thunder
Mountain; elsewhere, they keep developers from turning old claims
into mountaintop trophy homes.
"There are all these mining communities that came and went," said
Alan Front, senior vice president for the Trust For Public Lands,
which helped negotiate the Thunder Mountain deal. "Now, they're
only digging deep enough to put in foundations for McMansions."
The 36-year-old San Francisco-based group buys land with money
from supporters and holds it until agencies such as the Forest
Service can secure funding elsewhere, including offshore oil and
natural gas royalties from the federal Land and Water Conservation
Fund. So far, the group has helped on 3,500 projects, protecting
2.5 million acres in 47 states.
In March, it engineered an $8 million deal to buy nearly 1,500
acres of private mining claims outside Yellowstone National Park's
northeast gate some feared would become backcountry cabins. It
plans to eventually transfer them to the Forest Service,
effectively ending a decades-old fight over the New World Mining
District near Cooke City.
And Sept. 30, the Trust for Public Land shifted 115 acres to local
governments in Telluride, Colo., the final $1.4 million piece of a
$14 million deal begun in 2004 where some 7,000 acres of mining
claims have been transferred to public agencies. Telluride
officials feared 12,000-square-foot homes could be built on
private mining claims that separated the town from a nature
preserve and worried public access to 431-foot Bridal Veil Falls
could be blocked.
"Organizations such as TPL have the ability to move much faster to
tie up property than governments," said Lance McDonald,
Telluride's projects manager. "Together, we crafted an acquisition
that lowered the purchase price."
On Idaho's Thunder Mountain, the group paid $5.5 million in 2005
for mining claims resembling a cherry on stem road piercing deep
into the Frank Church. On Sept. 11, the Forest Service made the
last of four installments to Trust for Public Land on nearly eight
square miles of backcountry that previously belonged to one of
Idaho's oldest mining families.
Back in 1910, Daniel C. McRae staked his first claims in the
Thunder Mountain area, where visitors who today make the 160-mile,
six-hour drive from Boise can still see tram towers that brought
ore from the mines along a 1.5 mile cableway to mills in the
valley below. There's also the underwater ghost town of Roosevelt,
submerged after a 1909 landslide.
Jim Collord, McRae's grandson and president of Thunder Mountain
Gold, preserves fading family photos of the area on his computer
at offices in Boise. The retired superintendent from large gold
Nevada mines including Jerritt Canyon pointed out during an
interview in early October that Coeur d'Alene Mines extracted more
than 100,000 ounces of gold between 1986 and 1990 from Thunder
Mountain, worth some $90 million at today's prices.
Though there are still millions of dollars worth left in the
ground, Collord said getting permits for a new mine would take a
decade - not including inevitable legal battles with environmental
groups fearful of fuel-laden trucks crossing Monumental Summit to
the west. Thunder Mountain is perched above the headwaters of
Middle Fork of the Salmon River, where endangered chinook salmon
"It could take forever to permit anything in there," Collord said
in a recent interview.
As a result, discussions between Collord, the Payette National
Forest and the Trust for Public Land began in the 1990s over
eventually shifting the property to public control. An appraisal
of claims controlled by the family valued the deal at $13 million,
but he agreed to sell for $5.5 million, a price that promised
enough seed money for exploration work he's doing elsewhere in
southwestern Idaho and northern Nevada.
"My family legacy is a lot better off than being stuck with an
environmental issue," Collord said.
Payette National Forest managers who had long coveted Thunder
Mountain describe the site as a mile-and-a-half high island deep
in the wilderness.
"You can see the whole planet from there," said Jim Egnew, the
Payette's minerals and geology manager. "The sounds you can hear
for miles and miles. From a wilderness perspective, it would be
extremely intrusive to have an industrial operation."
Before the snow flies this year, Forest Service crews are
salvaging steel from modern milling equipment that remains at
Thunder Mountain and selling it to recyclers who are paying top
dollar, thanks to robust metal prices. Some of the proceeds will
help pay for $1 million in remediation work necessary to clean up
legacy mining pollution at the site.
Eventually, Payette National Forest District Ranger Joe Harper
hopes to provide interpretive material at Thunder Mountain for
adventurous mining history buffs who make the long drive in.
"There's some great old crushing machines that came from out of
country that are still intact," Harper said. "There are old cabins
that show what hard lives miners lived, in a period where there
was no road, only a trail."