Who’s after rare metals in the Klamath Mountains?

While the region has a small cache of tellurium, politics and economics are in the way.

 

When Interstate 5 was built in the 1960s, it sliced through southwest Oregon’s Klamath Mountains, exposing their metamorphic innards. To Michael Cope, the brawny founder of American Mineral Research, this layer cake of mineralized rock proves that Josephine County is sitting on cache of valuable rare metals — and his small company hopes to eventually free up the resource so that it can be used in solar panels. 

In early May, I met Cope on the shoulder of an I-5 off-ramp. The rain was sporadic, and we hurried across the road so that he could show me where he’d found gold a few years back. Neither of us had rain jackets, and when it began to hail, Cope looked up and asked God to stop the downpour. It stopped minutes later, and I laughed as the spring sun came out, highlighting rusty ochre and deep maroon rocks. Some had a navy-blue tinge, others a slight purple — a sign that the area is mineralized and a possible site not just for gold, but for tellurium, a rare metal increasingly useful as a semiconductor material in the solar and battery industry. It’s a metal that is now included on the Department of the Interior’s “critical minerals” list. 

Dusk falls over Grants Pass, Oregon.

Cope interrupted his own monologues with excited outbursts whenever he found an interesting rock. He was able to read the geology in a way I could not. A few rocks at his feet were serpentine green. “This is what you’re looking for right there,” he said. “It’s the blues, the dense rock. What your feet are on … all of this is what we looked for on road cuts and (Bureau of Land Management) roads.” He cracked open colorful rocks one by one with a small hammer and smelled them for sulfur. After scrutinizing the insides with a small magnifying glass, he pointed out tiny flecks of metal, shimmering in the sun. “Fool’s gold,” he guessed. 

Cope has found tellurium on AMR’s properties, confirmed by lab tests he shared with me. And he and his partner, Jay Meredith, an investor and the former city accountant for Grants Pass, Oregon, recently got a permit to look for rare metals on a county-owned parcel near the towns of Placer and Golden.

But despite the glimmer of possibility, AMR’s quest could prove quixotic: Mining in the area is nearly nonexistent, smothered by global competition and an expensive regulatory environment. Cope still holds out hope for these knotted, colorful rocks; he’s fixated on the unique geology of the Klamath Mountains and the hidden riches it may hold. “It’s just sitting here waiting for people to take advantage,” Cope told me, looking out at the forested hills sprawling southwest toward Grants Pass. “We’re the State of Jefferson. The way I look at it — we could be the wealthiest state ever.”

FOR RURAL TOWNS like Grants Pass, extractive industries paid the bills during the 20th century. Timber provided a large share of the county budget; by the 1990s, it accounted for well over 40% of the funding, underwriting roads, schools and law enforcement. But once the industry was automated and consolidated, everything changed; the number of sawmill workers in Oregon fell from 25,500 in 1969 to 18,500 in 1989. 

By the mid-’90s, then-President Bill Clinton’s Northwest Forest Plan curtailed public-lands logging, and Josephine County’s budget was gutted. “Timber payments … created a really hard situation for local governments in Oregon specifically,” said Kris Smith, a researcher at Headwaters Economics, an independent research group. The area was “stuck in a downward spiral of not having enough money to pay for your everyday needs in local government,” Smith said. 

“We’re the State of Jefferson. The way I look at it — we could be the wealthiest state ever.”

Since then, Josephine County has had to remake its economy. Visitors raft down wild and scenic rivers, patronize local vineyards and restaurants or buy weed from cannabis farms. But now, wildfires, heat waves and smoke threaten the tourist season. Grants Pass, for instance, was ranked fifth in the nation for poor air quality this year, largely due to wildfires. And the area’s socioeconomic problems are chronic: The median income and educational attainment consistently lag behind state averages, and the industries that have replaced timber — including health care and tourism — are generally either low-wage or seasonal, or both. The county mirrors a nationwide trend, with the fastest growing sector being the health-care industry, which accounts for 18% of jobs. Retail comes in second at 13%. Lack of housing in its biggest city is also acute: The rental vacancy in Grants Pass is below 1%, and Kelly Wessels, the former director of the United Community Action Network, estimated that the percentage of fast-food workers living without shelter was roughly 25% in 2020.  

When I spoke with Josephine County Commissioner Dan DeYoung this spring, he had a long list of grievances, including the environmental regulations he sees as hampering his county’s ability to extract resources. As a member of the county’s mining advisory, he has fought them at every turn, complaining that the resources have been “locked up.” But he’s also skeptical that a company like American Mineral Research can launch a new era of extractive wealth there. “I don’t know of any private company that could ever pull it off,” he said. “Not in today’s environment.”

Still, new-energy metals could be a possible way out of the economic purgatory DeYoung describes. He aided AMR by weaving a statement from Cope and Meredith into a testimony before the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee. For years, they’d tried to attract the federal government’s attention, even suggesting at one point that the Trump administration christen the area the “Trump Mineral Belt.”

New extractive frontiers may indeed open up as the Biden administration attempts to transition the nation away from fossil fuels. The administration slipped $500 million into a military spending request to “expand domestic production of critical minerals” to secure energy and mineral supplies. 

The Klamath Mountains are known to hold useful metals like cobalt, nickel and bismuth, but geologists still see the development of tellurium as a long shot. The rare metal is produced cheaply in China and Texas as a byproduct of copper smelting. But AMR hasn’t stopped trying. The company says it has a plan to mine tellurium alongside gold, noting the long-term growing demand for rare metals. When I asked Meredith if he thought tellurium development could cure the county’s budget woes, he was emphatic. “Absolutely,” he said.

“That’s where big, big dollars could be available in the long term.”   

Theo Whitcomb is an editorial intern at High Country News. Email him a [email protected]g or submit a letter to the editorSee our letters to the editor policy.

High Country News Classifieds
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • FREE RANGE BISON AVAILABLE
    Hard grass raised bison available in east Montana. You harvest or possible deliver quartered carcass to your butcher or cut/wrapped pickup. Contact Crazy Woman Bison...
  • CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST (NORTH CENTRAL WA)
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, and the chance to work with many different kinds of people and accomplish big conservation outcomes? Do you...
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...
  • NEW BOOK: A FEAST OF ECSTATIC VERSE AND IMAGERY
    Dynamic fine art photographer offers use of images to raise funds. Available for use by conservation groups. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com.
  • WANTED: TALENTED WRITER
    Write the introduction to A Feast of Ecstatic Verse and Imagery, a book concerning nature and spirituality. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com. Writer who works for conservation/nature...
  • MT STATE DIRECTOR- THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY
    The Montana State Director is a member of The Wilderness Society's (TWS) Conservation program team who plays a leading role in advancing the organization's mission...
  • HIGH COUNTRY NEWS EDITORIAL INTERNS
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is looking for its next cohort of editorial interns....