Gold mine capsizes in Westwater Canyon

  • Westwater Canyon

    Diane Sylvain
  • Westwater almost lost out on wilderness designation

    courtesy Friends of Westwater

Kayakers and rafters are planning celebratory boat trips down Westwater Canyon on the Colorado River this spring. As they float past the redrock walls, they can look around and see, well ... othing. Their joy stems from the recent removal of mine claims situated on 960 acres in the canyon, within a wilderness study area. (HCN, 10/16/95).

"We are totally ecstatic," says Friends of Westwater's Skip Edwards, who quit his job with the Bureau of Land Management to fight the mine. "It has been a long, hard battle ... But it's a tremendous amount of happiness when you actually come out on top."

Only five float trips a day are allowed down Westwater Canyon, which adds up to 15,000 visitors a year. Still, the canyon is secluded and sought after for its stunning beauty and easy accessibility.

Following a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, Pene Mining Co. has removed its machinery and abandoned its mine claims. The federal government will return $16,850 in fees the company had paid to keep the claims active under the 1872 Mining Law. Bureau officials say they will erase any traces of the mining by fall.

The mine's project manager, Ron Pene, is not rejoicing. He criticized the federal government's interpretation of the Wilderness Act and described himself as a victim "backed into a corner by the Department of Justice armed with lies, mistruth and fabricated documentation."

Keeping it wild

The fight over Pene's mining claims lasted nearly 15 years. Pene Mining Co. slipped its first mining claim into Westwater in 1984 after 12 miles of the canyon had been designated as a wilderness study area, a classification that adds protection to an area being considered for permanent wilderness designation. The claims, which were added to in 1991, ran along both sides of a one-mile stretch of the river within the study area. Pene was allowed only "casual use" of the land, which prevented him from using any explosives or mechanized equipment.

"From our standpoint, Westwater is designated a wilderness study area and whether people like that or not, it doesn't matter," says Bill Stringer of the BLM in Moab, Utah. "Our job is to maintain the area until a decision can be made."

Pene followed the rules at first, but as the years of pick and shovel work rolled on and the BLM denied his requests to bring in heavy machinery, his patience ran out. In 1992, Pene created a road to the site by grading what used to be a primitive track. In 1997, he brought in his first front-end loader.

Edwards says the road was an attempt to stave off wilderness protection. "I have the feeling that this started as a hobby operation," he says. "But in 1992, Ron Pene dropped his bulldozer blade at the wilderness study area boundary and started grading a road into his claim. It was obvious that the act was to impair the area so as to keep it out of wilderness and to keep his claims. There was no mining going on in the area that warranted that kind of a road."

The BLM repeatedly cited the company for violations and eventually asked the U.S. Department of Justice for help enforcing its rules. Saddled with a 1996 BLM report showing the claim was not economically viable, and with the Department of Justice inquiring about violations, Pene finally came to the bargaining table this March. Then he reluctantly settled out of court.

"Knowing I was without legal council, or funding to secure such council, the Department of Justice, with marching orders in hand, orchestrated the taking with supreme disregard of the law and my rights," Pene said afterward.

The struggle continues

The nonprofit Friends of Westwater still has an upstream paddle ahead in their efforts to get wilderness protection for Westwater. The debate over BLM wilderness in Utah has stretched over two decades, and there is no end in sight.

Environmentalists, led by the Utah Wilderness Coalition, have included Westwater in a bill that would designate nearly 9 million acres of Utah BLM land wilderness. Past versions of the bill, at 5.7 million acres, have stalled out in Congress in the face of opposition from the state's congressional delegation. The BLM now says 5.8 million acres are suitable for wilderness designation and Utah congressmen are struggling to come up with a new proposal.

Says Edwards, "Friends of Westwater will continue to exist in order to ensure that Westwater Canyon is included in any wilderness bill that would come out of Utah."

Juniper Davis is a High Country News intern.

You can contact...

* Friends of Westwater through Skip Edwards at 970/921-3034 or Greg Trainor at 970/244-1564;

* Bill Stringer, Assistant Field Manager for Resources with the Moab Bureau of Land Management, at 435/259-6111.

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