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.”
High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Idaho Conservation League (ICL) seeks an individual to lead this 45-year-old organization as executive director, to carry on ICLs work as Idahos leading voice...
  • IDAHO RIVERFRONT:
    2+ acres, 400+ feet on Snake River, 2800 sf residence, NWF-certified wildlife habitat, excellent hunting, fishing, birdwatching, stargazing, sunsets & panoramic views. In the heart...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS IS EXPANDING - THREE JOB OPENINGS
    Guardians is expanding and looking for a few great people to join us in protecting and restoring the wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and health...
  • SUNNYSIDE MARKET SEEKS NEW PROPRIETOR
    Organic grocery/cafe at Glacier Bay needs a vibrant leader. Love good food, community, and Alaska? Join us!
  • NO INDIVIDUAL HEROES: OURAY MOUNTAIN RESCUE TEAM
    Ouray County, Colorado, a popular tourist destination, has dramatic mountains and amazing winter ice climbing. Challenging terrain and high altitude can push visitors to their...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Associate-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM COORDINATOR - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Coordinator-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM MANAGER - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Manager-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM ASSOCIATE, SOUTHERN CA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Associate-Southern CA. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • THE BOOK OF BARLEY -
    Collector's Item! The story of barley, the field crop. 50 years of non-fiction research. www.barleybook.com
  • TEMPORARY ASSISTANT EDITOR
    Are you a climber and a writer who is passionate about mountain literature? Do you love searching through old alpine journals for stories of esoteric...
  • OWN YOUR OWN CANYON - 1400 SF STRAW-BALE ECO-HOME ON 80 ACRES - 3 HOURS FROM L.A.
    1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • GRASSROOTS LEADERSHIP DIRECTOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a full-time grassroots leadership director to oversee all aspects of the Grassroots Leadership Program. This includes ongoing development of...
  • RIVER TRIP LEADER & EDUCATOR
    Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a growing nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...
  • RIVER GUIDE AND EDUCATOR
    Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a growing nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...
  • POLICY AND RESEARCH ASSOCIATE
    The Center for Western Priorities (CWP) is a nonpartisan communications and policy center that serves as a source of accurate information, promotes responsible policies and...
  • OWN A PIECE OF THE GREATER YELLOWSTONE ECOSYSTEM!
    near Ennis, MT. Artist designed, 1900 SF, 2BR/2BA home on 11.6 acres with creek, tree, views, privacy. 406-570-9233 or [email protected] www.arrowreal.com (Country Homes).
  • COMMUNICATIONS COORDINATOR
    Western Colorado Alliance brings people together across western Colorado to build grassroots power through community organizing and leadership development. Together we work for a future...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Colorado Farm to Table is looking for a full-time energetic, creative Executive Director to lead our team in Salida.
  • HIGH COUNTRY NEWS HOLIDAY OPEN HOUSE
    Join the publisher, editors, writers and staff of High Country for the annual Holiday Open House. Refreshments, food, door prizes and merriment. Thursday, December 6,...