Another wilderness developer pops up

  • High-mountain views in Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness

    Tom Shands photo
 

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.

The man 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 it.

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 metaphors.

"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 cabins.

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 there.

"Most people want to go back to Chico (Hot Springs Resort) and have a cocktail" at the end of the day, Sievers said.

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 trust fund.

"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 possible.

Are there any buyers?

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 value.

"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."

"The value 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 said.

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 fishing.

"In general, the Gallatin National Forest is not considering new outfitter-guide uses at this time," said Bob Dennee, lands manager for the forest.

If forest officials do consider a permit, their decision "absolutely" would examine the effects of dozens, perhaps hundreds of noisy helicopter trips every summer.

Sievers makes a threat

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."

"We 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."

George McCarthy, 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 fund.

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 liability.

"I don't know if I even want the responsibility of owning it," he said.

Dennee, Johnson and Ekey all said they are willing to work with Sievers.

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 fast.

"It's just like calling a taxi," he said. "It's kinda weird."

The writer works for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

You can contact ...

* Bob Dennee at the Gallatin National Forest, 406/587-6701;

* Bob Ekey at The Wilderness Society, 406/586-1600.

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