Four historic routes — the Oregon, California,
Pony Express and Mormon Pioneer trails — converge southeast
of the Wind River Range in Wyoming, at an area called South Pass.
In the 1800s, large wagon trains crossed the Continental Divide
here. Now preserved as the South Pass National Historic Landmark,
the landscape still looks much as it did over 150 years ago: just
sagebrush, sky and old wagon ruts.
But that could change: This summer, the Fremont Gold Corporation plans to dig 200 test pits five miles southeast of the pass. Depending on the results, the Canadian-owned company might seek permits for full-scale mining, to sluice ore containing an estimated 1 million ounces of gold from sand and gravel deposits.
Mining is not allowed within the historic landmark. But nearby surface mining could damage the integrity of South Pass and its historic views, according to Claudia Nissley, state historic preservation officer. Although concerned, her agency hasn’t formally objected to the plan.
The federal Bureau of Land Management, which manages most of the land in the area, has OK’d only the 10-by-20-foot test pits. To reduce impacts on sage grouse, the company cannot start digging until nesting season ends in mid-July, says Rey Adame, spokesman for the Rock Springs BLM office.
A decade ago, lawsuits by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Wyoming Outdoor Council convinced the Altamont Gas Transmission Company not to run a pipeline through South Pass (HCN, 8/21/95: HCN's founder fights his last fight, yet again). "We fought them all the way, because that is the most historic spot in the West," says Tom Bell, emeritus director of Wyoming Outdoor Council, and the founder of High Country News. "Without South Pass, there would be no Western states. Why disturb that area, just for a little money?"