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Carol W. LaGrasse, reprinted from Positions on Property, Vol. 2, No. 3 (Oct.-Dec. 1994)

Will the betrayal and eradication of "Mom and Pop" small operators of mines in Alaska be repeated during implementation of the California Desert Protection Act of 1994?

In 1979, Congressman Morris Udall promised that the expansion of Mt. McKinley National Park to create the 6½ million acre Denali National Park and Reserve would not hinder the development of existing mining claims.

"We want to make it abundantly clear that it is our intention that these persons possessing valid existing mineral rights should be permitted access to their claims to exercise those rights. Reasonable access should not mean access which is so hedged with burdensome restrictions as to render the exercise of his valid rights virtually impossible…

"The bottom line of our position is that holders of valid existing claims will not be precluded by the Federal Government from reasonable development of these claims. When conflicts arise between the essential needs of the holder of valid claim for reasonable access to work or develop his claim and restrictions to minimize the adverse impact on the ecology of the conservation system unit, then if such conflict cannot be resolved by agreement, the Federal Government must be prepared to accept the degree of environmental harm that is unavoidable if the holder's essential needs are to be met or be prepared to purchase the claim in question."(1)

The National Park Service destroyed mining businesses in Denali National Park and the other new national parks in Alaska, yet delayed compensation or simply never compensated the businesses.

For the first five years after the 1980 beginning of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), the Park Service ignored the colorful, vibrant small gold mines in Kantishna which were surrounded by the enlarged park boundaries, giving them "emergency" permits to continue the same operations. Then Park Service employees invited the Northern Alaska Environmental Center to sue to shut down the mines, which they did under the auspices of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund in 1985 and received an injunction against mining until the Park Service completed park-wide environmental impact statements (EIS's).

The self-sufficient mining way of life "ground to a halt," according to Jim Burling of the Pacific Legal Foundation. Over the next five full years, the Park Service compiled the environmental impact statements. Nearly all the miners went broke during the wait.

Theoretically, the miners could sue for compensation in Federal District Court but to do this they had to have a mining plan approved by the Park Service. The plans were impossibly expensive to prepare to the Park Service's ever-changing requirements and in the end the Park Service told one miner they would not approve any until the parkwide EIS was done.

Only one tiny operation still continued to operate in 1990 of several dozen before the environmentalists brought their lawsuit.

Finally complete in 1990, the Park Service's EIS's were based on assumptions so exaggerated that it would be absolutely impossible to receive a permit to mine again at Kantishna.

The Park Service also required that to operate even one small mine, the miners had to restore every existing and former mining claim in Kantishna to pre-1900 pristine condition, including the National Park Service's mines.

"For the mines, the primary NPS tactic has been one of dragging out the mine permitting process. The NPS decision has already been made to disallow mining, but they will not state that fact to the miners. Rather they string them along by asking for more information, better designs, changes to the designs, added conditions that must be incorporated, etc… And the process continues until the miner goes broke or becomes so frustrated he quits - and that result is success for the NPS."
-Steve Borell, Executive Director of the Alaska Mining Association, Inc.(2)

The miners have been seeking compensation for their inoperable claims but the Park Service refuses to complete review of their plans of operation and deny their applications. Yet the miners can not go to court unless they have exhausted every administrative remedy.

The process of suing is extremely expensive and may cost more than the claim's value. Worse yet, the Park Service denies the "validity" of the claims in court by claiming that the claims do not have enough gold to be economically viable, "valid" claims.

An article of this length can barely allude to the harassment of miners, native allotment holders and other inholders who became surrounded by National Park and Preserve lands or bisected by Wild and Scenic Rivers. Travel on the road to Kantishna required individual permission from the Park Service for each employee, equipment supplier, friend and family member. Each visitor had to pick up his permit between 8 am and 5 pm on weekdays. The Park Service rapidly increased bus traffic and restricted miners and other inholders to use of the single road through Denali to only between 10 pm and 6 am. It was impossible to drive to Kantishna the 126 miles each way (where there is absolutely no stopping place en route) and unload and return between the hours allotted, so all shipments added on a full day's tab to the miners. Even emergency use was restricted to these hours.

When the Senate hearings were held in Anchorage in 1993 in essence on the betrayal of ANILCA, Senator Frank Murkowski reported for the record that there were 1,492 patented and unpatented claims totalling 30,000 acres within the 15 units of the NPS in Alaska totalling 50 million acres. Of the nearly 1500 claims, of which 500 were patented, the hearings began under the assumption that ten active mining operations remained, of which 5 were sand and gravel operations for road maintenance, the other 5 mainly small or tiny family operations.

Even these assumptions proved generous. One of the "five" gold miners, Cheryl Jong, whose family was in placer mining on the Seward peninsula since 1899, certified that her operation had given up and asked the NPS to acquire the claims. The Humboldt Group, which she represented, cannot mine. She had expended over $70,000 in travel and paperwork over seven years. In the end, she said sardonically, the Park Service had "tried to accommodate me… in allowing the use of a #2 hand shovel at Humboldt."(3) The Park Service allowed no mechanized equipment.

This is the supposed emergency of "Denali… being destroyed by neighboring mining activities" described in the National Parks and Conservation Association's November 1994 fund-raising letter to its 500,00 well-meaning, but uninformed members and hundreds of thousands of other Americans. The letter describes the urgent need for more visitor accommodations. Yet the Park Service, egged on by NPCA and others under the direction of Secretary of Interior Babbitt, is phasing out all visitor accommodations in the 6 1/2 million acre Denali National Park, and making it impossible for the small lodges operated by the former mining community to operate.

The Park Service demonstrated its supreme insensitivity to the cultural heritage of Alaskan gold mining and disdain for education by carelessly or deliberately blowing up the historic Stampede mining buildings at Denali National Park in 1987. Army personnel under the direction of Park Service rangers detonated a 4,000 lb. pile of old ammonium sulfate along with 10,000 blasting caps and bottles of nitric acid along with 43 lb of high energy explosive to insure detonation, destroying the buildings, which were to be the on-hands training center for students from University of Alaska at Fairbanks, and leaving a crater in the bed of Stampede Creek. The Park Service denied any culpability and gave no compensation. The Park Service had already impeded the University's access to the mines and any usable plan of operation. In 1989, because of the Service's 10 years' obstruction of the claims "proving" process, the University gave up the claims.

Donated to the University in 1979, according to Professor Scott Huang, the Stampede Mine would have been the "only mineral property operated by the State university with the potential for production, with the chance for real and meaningful education, with the challenge and opportunity to demonstrate through research that exploration for and production of minerals can be met without degradation of the environment."(4)

The National Park Service's betrayal of the Alaskan mining tradition cries out for redress.

On a personal note, I confess my shock at the ruthless destruction of the placer mining culture, which was a source of such interest during the summer of 1970 which my husband and I spent in Alaska. The free spirit that fueled the hard work of the gold miners and their generous welcome were unforgettable.

(1) 125 Cong. Rec. H2858 (Representative Udall at Congressional Hearings on ANILCA, as cited by James S. Burling, Pacific Legal Foundation, November 6, 1993 Hearing before the Subcommittee on Public Lands, National Parks and Forests of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources U.S. Senate in Anchorage, Alaska, on the Mining Activities in Units of the National Park Service in Alaska since ANILCA. S. HRG 103-577, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1994, p56
(2) Steve Borell, Ibid, p63
(3) Cheryl Jong, Ibid, p49
(4) Scott Huang, Ibid p 93

I am indebted to Steve Borell, executive director Alaskan Mining Association and to Rev. J Michael Hornick, Vicar of the Archdiocese of Alaska, both of Anchorage, for their assistance. Much information for this article was also from the testimony of James C. Burling, Pacific Legal Foundation, of Anchorage and Sacramento. The accuracy of the article is solely my responsibility, however.

-Carol W. LaGrasse

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