PARADISE VALLEY, Mont. - Chain saws are running in the middle of the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness. There's a miniature backhoe there, too, along with a regular series of noisy helicopters, hauling in work crews.
responsible is having a blast, like a kid with a new toy. All this
would be illegal on public land, but it's taking place on a narrow
strip of private land atop the Absaroka Range, and officials at the
Gallatin National Forest say there isn't much they can do about
Underneath the site lie minerals: gold,
silver and platinum, according to owner Jim Sievers. Nearby lakes
offer fishing for chunky cutthroats, the kind of angling people pay
big money to sample.
The land is only 600 feet
wide but it is two miles long, extending from dense forests at
8,400 feet to granite peaks that soar above 10,000 feet and divide
the Yellowstone and Boulder River drainages. There's a small lake
on the property, along with streams, meadows and waterfalls.
Sievers, 52, is so excited about the place that he stretches for
"In all the Absaroka Beartooth
Wilderness, this is the tiara, the crown jewel," he said. "It's
like the tenderloin in a beef."
The property was
claimed and patented by miners early in the century who left behind
collapsed tunnels, the iron tracks of tram cars and a few small
Sievers, formerly a San Francisco real
estate developer, bought the land in 1992, but didn't do anything
with it until this summer. He maintains the unmined minerals are
worth a bundle. The recreational potential is vast, too. Because
helicopters can land on his property, people with enough money can
fish isolated lakes without spending two or three days getting
"Most people want to go back to Chico (Hot
Springs Resort) and have a cocktail" at the end of the day, Sievers
If his plans bear fruit, people will be
able to do exactly that. But first, he wants the federal government
to buy the mineral rights from him, while he keeps the land.
"We could easily be talking about the same kind
of numbers as in the New World Mine" buyout, he said. That 1996
buyout paid Crown Butte Mines $65 million in exchange for its right
to mine near Cooke City.
"I'm trying to preserve
that wilderness piece," Sievers maintained, adding that the last
thing he wants to do is mine. Still, he isn't willing to abandon
the minerals without payment. He said he owes it to his children's
"They're going to cost plenty," he
said of the mineral rights.
Once the mineral
rights are sold, he plans to charge anglers $1,000 a day, with all
proceeds going to local charities. "I don't need any more money."
While insisting his primary goal is
conservation, Sievers said he would helicopter several hundred
people a year to the heart of one of the biggest wilderness areas
in the contiguous 48 states. The old and the infirm have as much
right as the young and strong to visit an alpine lake in the
wilderness, he said, and helicopters make that
Are there any
Forest Service officials are eager to
talk to Sievers. "If he is interested in selling his land, in
total, to the government for fair market value, we would be
interested," said Debbie Johnson, Big Timber District Ranger. But
"fair market value" is critical. Even if the mineral deposit is as
big as Sievers hopes, that doesn't mean it has much
"There's no way anybody's going to look at
those right now," said Alan Kirk, the mining engineer who
discovered the rich deposits at the New World Mine outside
Yellowstone. "I don't think there's any possibility of doing
anything with it, not realistically."
of a resource in the ground, if you never mine it, is zero," Kirk
added. "If I was a mining company, I wouldn't even attempt it. It
sounds like a money sink."
At the New World
Mine, which isn't in a wilderness area and has roads on it, the
company spent nearly $40 million defining its ore body, according
to Sherm Sollid, a geologist for the Gallatin National Forest. Of
the $65 million paid to the company, $22.5 million has been set
aside for cleanup of mine wastes there, and unspecified amounts
were paid to another owner, leaving the company with nothing, after
years of effort.
Sievers' 140 acres isn't big
enough for a modern mine and he would need an expansion permit.
Such expansions are illegal in wilderness areas, Sollid
Building a fishing camp on Sievers'
property is possible but problematic. The lake on his property is
fishless, though he has applied for permission to stock it. Guiding
people to nearby lakes on the national forest requires a
special-use permit if the guests are paying for the
"In general, the Gallatin National
Forest is not considering new outfitter-guide uses at this time,"
said Bob Dennee, lands manager for the forest.
forest officials do consider a permit, their decision "absolutely"
would examine the effects of dozens, perhaps hundreds of noisy
helicopter trips every
Sievers makes a
Nonetheless, Sievers says he is
determined. He has hired a Washington, D.C., lobbyist and says that
if the Forest Service doesn't offer him a letter of intent to buy
the mineral rights by next year, he will "fire up" a Cat and punch
a road through the wilderness to his property. This is a technique
of intimidation and coercion pioneered by Colorado developer Tom
Chapman (HCN, 8/2/99).
If he does that, "he would
be cited," Dennee said.
Law requires the agency
to allow reasonable access to private property, Dennee said, but
"that doesn't necessarily mean a road."
would challenge at every turn any proposal to put a road up there,"
said Bob Ekey, Northern Rockies director for The Wilderness
Society. "You bet we would."
Sievers' lobbyist in Washington, is a Butte native who has visited
the property. "He truly loves the country up there," he said of
Sievers. "But at the same time, he's got a fiduciary
responsibility" to his children's trust
Sievers maintains that he is flexible and
willing to listen to all options. He may wind up keeping the
property for the personal use of his friends and family, he said,
or it may work out that the whole thing bears too much
"I don't know if I even want the
responsibility of owning it," he said.
Johnson and Ekey all said they are willing to work with
Meanwhile, Sievers is amazed that it
takes only 10 minutes to arrange for a 10-minute helicopter ride
from his ranch on the valley floor to the mountain property. When
he was living in San Francisco, he couldn't even get a cab that
"It's just like calling a taxi," he said.
"It's kinda weird."
The writer works for
the Bozeman Daily
You can contact
* Bob Dennee at the Gallatin National Forest,
* Bob Ekey at The Wilderness