Mining the crown jewels

  -We've put our blood and sweat into this for 50 years," says 81-year-old A.J. Jackson, an owner of the Rainbow Talc Mine in Southern California's Death Valley. Jackson is talking about the mine he ran sporadically between 1952 and 1972. Now, Jackson and his partners want to dig again. The only problem: Rainbow Talc now lies within a wilderness area of Death Valley National Park.


Despite its location, Jackson's proposal has a good shot at being approved by the National Park Service. Staking new mining claims within national parks is forbidden, but when parks have been created or expanded, pre-existing claims survive the transfer to Park Service jurisdiction. Mine owners, however, must contend with Park Service mining regulations, and these are stricter than those of other public-land agencies.


"We can't approve a mine if it will cause significant damage to park resources," says Julia Brunner, a regulatory specialist at the Park Service's geology division in Denver.


But the agency must also respect the property rights established by the 1872 Mining Law. "If we can't mitigate the operations, we seek funding to buy them out," says Brunner.


The National Park System contains about 2,500 unpatented and patented mining claims, according to Brunner, and most of the claims lie within the three Southern California desert parks. Mojave National Preserve contains about 1,400 claims - more than any other Park Service unit. Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks have about 400 and 60 claims, respectively.


Currently, there are only nine active hardrock mining operations in three Western parks: five in Mojave National Preserve, two in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska, and two in Death Valley National Park. Brunner says the Park Service is now reviewing plans for 25 new operations, including the Rainbow Talc proposal.


The number of claims within parks has fallen considerably in recent years, thanks to reforms of the 1872 law which require a $100 annual maintenance fee for each unpatented claim (HCN, 11/15/93).


*Mitch Tobin