Dispatch from White Hope Mine dispute in Montana

The constitutionalist group Oath Keepers is defending a mine that the Forest Service says is out of compliance.

 

The man's stare seeths with anger. He is bearded, maybe 35 years old, slightly overweight but powerful, wearing a camouflage baseball cap with a faded American flag patch. To his right is another large man, arms crossed. To his left, a diminutive young woman, dressed head to toe in camo and wearing a large knife on her hip, is filming my every move.

All three are blocking my advance beyond a Forest Service gate that they or their comrades have used to bar the road. They believe they are defending land that is private — a small mining claim for copper, zinc, silver and traces of gold held by George Kornec and Phil Nappo — but that the Forest Service says is national forest.

I ask how their day is going, what they have been up to. The middleman snaps back: "We cannot discuss that with you." The stare.

Welcome to the standoff at the White Hope Mine.

My day started in the tiny town of Lincoln, about 20 miles from the mine, in the ponderosa country of western Montana. I arrived on Aug. 10, five days after the Oath Keepers — a group of mostly former law enforcement and military members who claim to defend the Constitution — issued a call for "all American patriots" to join in "Operation Big Sky" and "help save our country" by defending the miners against the Forest Service. Two related groups, Idaho Three Percenters and the Pacific Patriot Network, joined in.

I stopped at the Forest Service ranger station on the edge of town and began to piece together the agency's story: In 1986, the miners missed a renewal deadline for their claim, which had been worked since the 1920s. They had to file a new claim, which fell under the 1955 Multiple Surface Use Act instead of the more lenient 1872 Mining Law. Thereafter, the Forest Service required the miners to have an approved operating plan, which they did until 2014. At that time, the agency raised concerns about the miners' construction of an unapproved shed and their cutting of firewood.  

The arrival of the Oath Keepers "was unexpected," says regional Forest Service spokesman David Smith. The agency held meetings with the miners as recently as July 30 to discuss bringing the claim into compliance. "Our objective is to continue working with (the miners) so they can resume their operation," Smith says.

I hung out in town, waiting to meet with Mary Emerick, a spokesperson for the Oath Keepers. A lone man in camo walked the main street. I got a hamburger, and the waitress told me a few of the operatives just finished brunch. "They are only here to do good," she said.

Emerick invited me to the Hotel Lincoln and we sat on the back patio overlooking ponderosas. Last week she drove all night from her home in southern Oregon to get here. She and others here participated in a similar scuffle with the Bureau of Land Management at the Sugar Pine Mine in her home state in April. The current standoff fits into a growing trend in which Oath Keepers and related groups are called in to battle federal agencies during Western public lands disputes.

She explained that with Operation Big Sky, the Oath Keepers dispute the 1986 claim lapse, and that the Forest Service has unlawfully threatened the miners. But she would not provide evidence of either, saying it would compromise their legal case. Her description of the day-to-day operation was also evasive. How many people are defending the claim? "That's a security issue." Rough number? "We have the capability to expand it."

I wanted to see the operatives in action, but it's complicated. Montana's Department of Environmental Quality is overseeing a major reclamation of a larger, unrelated mine nearby. The project involves hauling hundreds of cubic yards of mine tailings with a steady stream of heavy trucks on the same roads that lead to the White Hope Mine. To accommodate the trucks, the Forest Service has closed the roads to the public, granting an exception to the miners. As a journalist, I arranged for a similar variance and an escort (something the operatives, in another bit of lawlessness, have not done). 

At the access road, I hopped in the pickup of Shellie Haaland, who oversees the reclamation project. She voiced concerns that the Oath Keeper's scuffle could turn into something larger and more disruptive, possibly resulting in layoffs for the 30-plus people working the trucks and other equipment if law enforcement were to assume a major presence here. She drove me through the maze of roads and dropped me at the gate.

The operatives forcefully tell me to not take photos. They will not tell me their names. The man with the angry stare has a radio, and it crackles to life. He answers with a radio handle of "Warthog," or maybe War Hog — he won't say.

Self-described constitutional rights activists confer Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015, in Lincoln, Mont. According to retired U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. Jospeh Santoro the Oath Keepers and other constitutionalist groups are protecting the rights of the White Hope Mine claimants.
Thom Bridge/The Independent Record/AP
For about ten minutes, our talk revolves around a theme: I ask questions, and mostly War Hog answers in various ways that they will not answer. At one point, I proffer a pocket-sized copy of the Constitution, hoping to spark a real conversation. The stare.

Then, George Kornec, slightly stooped with age, comes walking slowly down the road. He is flanked by a muscular and tattooed man with a black Oath Keepers t-shirt. Kornec lives on the claim and does not own a telephone. He's known for having a sharp wit and a trove of local knowledge. 

His eyes twinkle. He lights a cigarette. The unnamed Oath Keeper speaks for him: "George's position is that anything beyond this gate is trespassing." They turn and walk away.

Editor's Note: On Aug. 11, federal prosecutors filed suit against the miners in U.S. District Court in Helena, in response to the dispute. The Missoulian reported that the suit seeks a declaration that the miners "illegally opened a road, cut down trees, built a garage and denied the public the right to access the White Hope mine near Lincoln."

Marshall Swearingen is a reporter based in Bozeman, Montana.