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.”
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