Thursday, April 5, 2012

Claim forfeiture: Saving a river, saving taxpayer money

This idyllic reach of  the upper  Chetco River below Mislatnah Creek will be permanently protected from mining if Congress passes the Chetco River Protection Act before July 2013. Ann Vileisis photo.
The recent forfeiture of nearly 20 miles of mining claims on the Wild and Scenic Chetco River means the effort to permanently protect this world-class salmon and steelhead river just got a whole lot easier. It also means there's a significant savings for the taxpayer with the potential for more. However, to take full advantage of this rare opportunity, Congress needs to pass the Chetco River Protection Act before July of next year. Learn how you can help.

The unexpected good luck:  Here's what Associated Press writes:
GRANTS PASS — Authorities said Tuesday that a Washington developer whose plans for mining gold on a premier Oregon salmon river inspired a bill in Congress to stop him has forfeited his claims.
Federal records show that Dave Rutan and his Chetco River Mining & Explorations LLC of La Center, Wash., failed to pay $1,540 in annual filing fees on the 11 claims on the Chetco River. The claims are now considered closed, said Donna Kauffman, a land law examiner in the minerals section of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Portland. The 30-day appeal period expired, so his only recourse would be to go to court.
Read the full article: Developer Forfeits Chetco River mining claims.

Luck + preparedness = a gift beyond measure and a golden opportunity: Companies rarely default on mining claims, especially where there's strong public pressure to protect an area. Wild and scenic rivers, wilderness, national monuments or areas under consideration for these designations are often targeted by speculators who use the 1872 Mining Law to mine the public's pockets or acquire valuable public land for $2.50 per acre. In areas with marginal mineral values it's hard to tell a serious mining proposal from a shakedown, so the forfeiture of the Chetco River claims was amazing good luck for the effort to permanently protect the river.

Good fortune favors the prepared: Chetco River Mining and Exploration's forfeiture of the nine claims would have been of little note if the entire length of the wild and scenic river had not been withdrawn from location and entry under the 1872 Mining Law.  This fact is what makes the claim forfeiture so significant.

The reason? No new mining claims can be located in withdrawn areas, and mining can occur only on claims where there's a valid existing right to mine under the laws of the United States. If there'd been no withdrawals when the claims were forfeited, CRME would have had to simply locate new claims and the public's interest in preserving the Wild and Scenic Chetco River would have been again secondary to the quest for gold.[1]

A tale of two withdrawals: What makes the story complicated is this: There are two separate withdrawals on the 44.5 mile wild and scenic river. One is permanent (in the Wilderness) and the other temporary (outside the Wilderness).  This is where the Chetco River Protection Act comes in. Its passage is needed to make the temporary withdrawal permanent. If there's no withdrawal in place before the temporary one expires in July 2013, the river outside the Wilderness will be open to the location of new claims and to mining. There will be no second chance.

The gifts: Barring a successful court challenge by CRME, this is what the claim forfeiture means —but only as long as the river is withdrawn from location and entry under the 1872 Mining Law:
  • 20 miles of the wild and scenic Chetco are no longer threatened by eight plans to mine the river using dredges weighing up to a ton;
  • the public will no longer have to pay $800,000 or more to process those 8 plans;
  • there is no need for valid existing rights determinations for the CRME claims, with the potential that one or more of the claims might be found valid, meaning the claims could be mined or worse, sold to the claimant for $2.50 per acre to become private land ;
  • the public's use and enjoyment of their wild and scenic river will not have to take a backseat to a bunch of mining operations;
  • the river corridor from Nook Bar to its headwaters will remain a refuge for fish, wildlife, and humans;
  • the last three active mining claims in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, including one valid claim, have been extinguished at no cost to the federal government or taxpayer [2];
  • roads bulldozed deep into the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and across the wild Chetco when it was open to the mining law will never be reopened to bulldozers or motorized travel.
Making the gifts permanent for the whole river:  We can celebrate the fact that the Wild Chetco River as it flows through the Kalmiopsis Wilderness (25.5 miles) is finally protected from mining—after almost a half century and millions of dollars of costs to taxpayers. However, all the advantages that the claim forfeiture provides for the river and taxpayers on the ~ 17 miles of National Forest land outside the Wilderness is temporary.

Only Congress can make it permanent  through the swift passage of the Chetco River Protection Act.  Only then will this golden opportunity turn into a lasting gift—for the river, for the public who love it, and for the communities and businesses it helps sustain. Learn how you can help.


[1] A cautionary note: The nine Chetco River mining claims, now owned by CRME, were forfeited in 1995 yet were reinstated after the claimant filed a timely appeal. Read the IBLA ruling here. However, CRME failed to file a timely appeal of the 2011 forfeiture determination. AP quotes the Bureau of Land Management's lead land law mineral examiner as saying CRME's "only recourse would be to go to court."

[2] Not to be confused with federal mining claims, a single inholding on the Little Chetco River in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness remains. The inholding is private property. It was acquired through the patenting provision of the 1872 Mining Law in 1988.  Under the archaic law, the public was basically forced to sell this otherwise congressionally protected Wilderness for $2.50 per acre.

The Little Chetco inholding is just one example of how the 1872 Mining Law is used to to acquire valuable public land for purposes other than mining. This property is now being advertised as a gold mining resort and for sale as time shares.

However, the only access to the inholding is through the use of small helicopters or on foot. Its current commercial activities are limited to 45 acres that were heavily burned during the 2002 Biscuit Fire. There are no water rights with the inholding, which is zoned as forest land and the current activities are not under permit.

Videos posted on YouTube by the owner of the inholding imply ownership of old mine shafts that contain valuable minerals.  However, there are no known mine shafts on the inholding. It's thought that the videos were filmed in abandoned mines on National Forest Wilderness land. No minerals can be legally removed from the old mines, and abandoned mines are inherently dangerous for the public to enter.