A gold mine in the Colorado wilderness?


A grandfathered mining claim passed down through generations has trumped the Wilderness Act. For the mine owners it’s a victory; for others the potential mine raises concerns over wilderness protection and mining regulations.

For nearly 60 years, Robert and Marjorie Miller of Montrose, Colo., have tried to re-open the Robin Redbreast Gold Mine in southwestern Colorado’s Uncompahgre Wilderness. Now, after decades of litigation, the Millers are on the verge of getting approval for their plans to mine in a designated wilderness area.

Marjorie Miller’s father staked the claims in 1938, more than 50 years before the land became part of the Uncompahgre Wilderness. Craggy peaks of the San Juan Mountains and alpine forest characterize the mining site. It is home to mountain lions, black bears, pikas and bighorn sheep – as well as a possible $6 million in gold.

The controversial General Mining act of 1872 has thus far preserved the Millers’ claim despite the land’s protected status. But mining such a claim is no simple task. In the 43 years since the creation of the Wilderness Act, the Millers have had to comply with a slew of state and federal regulations, including water-quality monitoring, environmental assessments and the transfer of claims to the Bureau of Land Management.

A May 11 U.S. Forest Service decision turned down the Millers’ plan, says Jeff Burch, an environmental coordinator for the service, but with some revisions, it could be approved by mid-August. While the Forest Service established requirements that would lessen mining impacts, such as reducing motorized vehicle use and night lighting, the Millers say the plans also reflect their personal environmental ethic.

“Something the Millers have always been concerned about is they didn’t want a mining operation that would destroy the beauty and serenity of the wilderness,” says Charlie Ponchak, the Millers’ geologist and owner of San Juan Geological and Mining Consultants in Montrose, Colo.

Mining efforts could remove as much as 2,500 tons of rock and gold from the mountain. To minimize damage to the environment, workers will use picks and shovels to extract ore, and then haul it out with mule teams over existing trails. Helicopters will deliver larger equipment to avoid the on-the-ground impacts of truck use, and the Millers will also post a reclamation bond to ensure the site’s restoration after mining.

Nonetheless, environmental groups are concerned that the proposed mining will degrade the wilderness with acid-mine drainage and the human footprint created by mining activities. The Robin Redbreast case demonstrates the need to reform the 1872 Mining Law, say the groups, because it restricts the Forest Service from properly regulating mining claims in designated wilderness areas. “Is the right of some private individuals worth the cost of really important wilderness areas that we all own?” says Dan Morse, public-lands director for the High Country Citizens Alliance.

Once the Forest Service accepts their plan, the Millers may need as many as nine additional permits from other agencies, including the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“Yeah, it’s only taken 23 years,” jokes Robert Miller, who is now in his 80s, referring to the couple's latest push to open the mine. “It could happen anytime.” But then he adds, “There’s so much more to do before we can ever start mining.”
Jun 01, 2007 02:35 PM

Morgan Heim wrote a good article on the Robin Redbreast mine, but as its owners, we must say thatthe surface workings will cover less than two acres of the Uncompahgre Wilderness, in an area where gold has been mined intermittently for more than one hundred and twenty years without causing any acid mine damage.  Nature has now erased all traces of most of those mines.  Porphyry Basin is lovely and wild, but is too close to civilization to be the best of wilderness. In the Forest Plan it is classified "8C". There, "Solitude and a low level of encounters with other users or evidence of past use is not an essential part of the social setting."  When we finish mining, the area will be restored as closely as possible to the way it is now, and in a few years the Robin Redbreast will also vanish into the mists of history.

Jun 04, 2007 11:46 AM

I can attest that the miner's proposed mule-based mining operation will be ultimately benign.  In the 1930s, my father worked in the mule-based Benton Mine on Whiskey Creek in what is now the Rogue River pristine virgin never-been-touched environmental area.  Several years ago, I tried to track down the location of what had been a huge mining operation, complete with huge CYANIDE tanks and other conniption-causing facilities.  It was all overgrown into a forest.  Two US Forest Service people asked me what I was doing there.  I showed them copies of the old photos that my father had given me.  They were astounded that the forest had completely recovered.  They were probably also astounded that the virgin they were guarding had been "touched" years ago.
I have a photo of my father and his mule, Judy, pulling a train of mine cars.  Both are wearing carbide lanterns.  My father's lantern was used to good effect on one occasion when Judy refused to pull the loaded cars out of the mine.  My father shook his lantern to get a longer flame, and applied it to Judy's tush.  It was an E-Ticket ride out of the mine.
Jun 04, 2007 04:42 PM

I have hiked into the mine site in Porphyry Basin recently, and can tell you that the mine is already intrusive, even though operation hasn't actually started.  There's a brand-new cabin, construction materials, and the trail used to carry materials in and out has been trampled.

Jun 14, 2007 12:26 PM

In response to Anonymous, who noted that the USFS workers were
"astounded that the forest had completely recovered"" from the historic
mining operations.  This points out a potential failure on the
part of the USFS to comply with the National Historic Preservation
Act.  Wilderness or not, the protection of sites which are
eligible for the National Register of Historic Places is still
required.  If this site was eligible, the USFS failed to do its

Jun 15, 2007 04:05 PM

There is no need for alarmism here.  Resource extraction can be done in a sensitive manner. I say let them mine it.  But don't let them transfer the claim to another party. 

Jun 21, 2007 02:47 PM

No mining in my wilderness. I am a taxpayer and do not want a pristine wilderness being damaged for a useless metal. That's right. Gold is useless. It has been assigned an artificial value by society that values it merely because of this artificial value. Boycott jewelry stores and save our wilderness.

There's Gold In Your Computer
Erik Hunter
Erik Hunter
Jun 27, 2010 08:15 PM
In response to "Anonymous" who is a "Taxpayer" and doesn't want gold mining; you should know there is gold in your computer (and almost all other electronic devices". You should probably boycott your computer and save us all of your whining about the "artificial value" of gold. You should know that gold is used for aerospace applications and medicine, too.
Jun 21, 2007 03:02 PM

One might check out the case of "Whitney Benefits v. US" in the Court of Federal Claims;  in my opinion, the miners' rights claimed in 1938 are private property rights created by state law and protected by federal and state constitutions.  If the alarmists or government want those rights extinguished, they should pay for the rights taken.  How bout it, USFS and mining opponents, are you prepared to pay for the taken minerals if you deny the right to extract?

In response to bdkochis's suggestion to deny the miners the rights to transfer ownership, I suggest that the state and federal government probably don't have that authority any more than they do to prohibit transferring ownership of a car or a home or a business.  In my view, perfected mineral rights are private property and can be sold or leased like any other private asset in most circumstances.

But bdkochis is right on concerning the core issue---let em mine it, dammit. 

Thank you.

Jul 02, 2007 11:33 AM

So what else is new in this society?  If it had not been for the miners and prospectors of old and the migration of people from the east searching for such treasures or the spanish and french migrating to Colorado then really none of you would actually be here today nor have the so called pleasures of automobiles, luxury homes high dollar incomes and the like.  If you want to hug a tree do it in your back yard.  Everybody pays taxes and these folks that already have a generation owned mining claim, which I consider private property should be allowed to mine it.  Is this society really so ignorant or just too damned greedy and selfish anymore to allow privacy to actually mean private.  Hey why don't you all give me your name and address so I can come tell you what you can and cannot do on your own private property, I pay taxes so why don't you allow me to tell you what to do if you want to tell others your ignorant ideas of what you don't want them to do on their private property.  We already pay our government taxes to be able to tell us how to live our lives so what's the difference if I tell you what to do.  Just pay me what you would them, who knows it could be better or worse.  And has anyone ever tried to stop the building of homes and lodges in our wilderness for the wealthiest to enjoy?  No there is too much money there.  That's why the government enacted all of those laws to keep their greedy little fingers in everybodies pies. 

Jul 23, 2007 11:37 AM

I was a colorado resident, grew up there cattle ranching, as did my great grand parents.  I left colorado as people that have moved in to the state have ruined it, along with the forest circus and the bureau of land mismanagement. the high country was built by miners/ loggers and livestock producers. the stuff they call wilderness, isnt that wild, all the elk are now moving out of the mountains to the lower valleys where farming is "king". and as long as the natural resources on public land arent harvested( grasses by grazing, trees by logging, ect.) the fire danger grows worse every year, then our tax dollars pay thousands of firefighters to risk their lives fighting the wild fires. then when some overly environmental persons house burns down we are supposed to feel for them , not me.  LET THEM MINE IT. Thank god I moved to alaska, where we take care of our natural resources by harvesting them ( correctly). with very little impact to the enviroment, as will be proven when ANWR opens up full scale. thank you C.F.

Jul 24, 2007 11:37 AM

60 years of applications?  What kind of due process is that?  Either they can or they can't.  Why drag it out for 60 years?

John Callaway



Mar 26, 2010 09:38 PM
It is as with all aspects of living in a supposed "Free" society. Everyone else trying to control what others can and can't do. It has become the so called American way. After all we have interfered with other countries and cultures to the same degree. It astounds me that most of the people who complain about mining really have no clue what is involved and the Wilderness areas are places most will never see. They just need something to complain about and control to justify their own stupidity in their own neglected lives.
Restriction of 'rights'
Mar 26, 2010 10:15 PM
is a natural consequence of crowding. Basically, your individual rights end when they infringe on my individual rights (and vice versa) and those we collectively hold as a society. Just look at how rights to privacy have evaporated in the last 10 years in the name of a 'safer' society. However, no one should expect the breadth of individual freedoms possible in earlier times to continue to exist when there are literally billions more people on the same sized patch of ground.

It is easy to romanticize earlier time periods but then again, we didn't have to live in them.

I can empathize with the Miller's and their goals and with the wilderness advocates and their goals. Compromise is the only reasonable path in this situation.

P.S. the 1872 Minerals Act is about 100 years overdue for a revision.