Ron Curtis says only two things prevent him from becoming a millionaire: the federal government and conservationists.
Curtis says he could make millions by mining a 1,500-acre tungsten claim that his father staked out in the San Gabriel Mountains about 30 years ago. But he says the obstacles are so great that he may have to make his millions by suing instead.
Curtis has filed a $1.25-billion lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles that contends that the federal government and two of its agencies have engaged in fraud and conspiracy that preclude his free access to his claim, worth an estimated $250 million.
The lawsuit is the latest chapter in the continuing saga of the Curtis Tungsten Mine, a story of Nelson bighorn sheep, a twisting, dusty road and a tungsten deposit that the Bureau of Land Management says is the largest in the nation.
"Believe it or not, what I have is better than gold," Curtis said.
The mine is in a corner of the Sheep Mountain Wilderness area and can be reached only by traveling a once-abandoned dirt road that Curtis and his wife, Claire, re-forged with picks and shovels a decade ago. He stopped using a lower road to the canyon in 1980 because it damaged his vehicles and was flooded most of the year.
It is the road--actually the use of the road--that angers conservationists, who say it passes through a lambing area for a herd of perhaps 200 sheep, endangering their population. The sheep roam the countryside at will.
But Curtis says his biggest battle is with the federal government, which has included his claim in a wilderness area and has limited his access to the mine. Curtis filed his lawsuit last year against the Department of Agriculture, amending the suit this January to include the Bureau of Land Management and the federal government itself as defendants.
Cutis' attorney, Ronald Cohen, said a major issue in the suit is the failure of the U.S. Forest Service, a division of the Department of Agriculture, to mention the mine in a report to Congress that served as the basis for legislation making Sheep Mountain a wilderness area last year.
About 8.6 million acres were declared wilderness as part of a legislative package, including 3.2 million acres in California. Wilderness means the land is preserved forever from new development. New uses are strictly limited to recreation and research. Expansion of existing operations is subject to review by federal agencies.
Curtis, whose claim rights were not affected by the wilderness designation, contends that the designation imposes severe limits on the potential expansion of his five-man, $1,100-a-day operation.
Curtis also contends that the federal agencies want to gain control of it and sell it to a large corporation in order to reap royalty payments.
Forest Service officials declined to specify what limits would be imposed on Curtis if he attempted to expand. The officials said Curtis can operate as he is indefinitely because his existing operating plan was approved in 1978, before the area was designated as wilderness.
Curtis said that as part of a wilderness area, his land has become part of the public domain, which he contends is an illegal "taking" of his property by the government. He contends that the wilderness designation is a violation of the federal Mining Claims Act of 1872, which guarantees miners the right to stake and develop their claims.
The request for $1.25 billion in damages, Curtis admits, is somewhat steep. But he said it includes the projected value of the mine plus $750 million in punitive damages, $250 million for the mine and $250 million for confiscation of his rights to the road. Curtis reasons that only a sum that large could actually penalize the government.
"If you're going to jump out, you might as well jump out big," he said.
U.S. Atty. Jim Arnold has declined to comment on the case, but has filed a motion to dismiss, saying the case should be heard in the U.S. Court of Claims. Federal District Judge Robert J. Kelleher is scheduled to hear the motion March 25.
Charlie McDonald, environmental specialist for Angeles National Forest, acknowledges that the Forest Service's environmental report that led to the wilderness legislation, known as RARE II, did not contain any reference to Curtis' mine. He said the information probably was omitted to save space.
"My guess is, RARE II was just too broad to look at on that scale," McDonald said. "It covered all of the United States and it couldn't get into any specific mining operation. It's only one tungsten mine. Curtis was recognized but, he was not specifically mentioned."
McDonald said information about the mine was included in working papers stored at the Forest Service supervisor's headquarters in Pasadena.
But Robert Terrell, a professional staff member who advises the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee before which Curtis testified, said he believes Curtis' rights have been violated.
"I don't consider that to be an insignificant omission," Terrell said. "It is a very serious omission. This is a legislative taking."
Curtis said he has made a concerted effort to express his concerns to federal officials over the years.
"I testified in front of the House in '79, I testified in front of the Senate in '83. I've been through three presidents and talked to two different secretaries of agriculture. They keep thinking, 'Hey, this little miner can't do this to us.' They keep forgetting this little miner is a college graduate."
Curtis, 38, is a veteran of the Vietnam War and a 1973 graduate of the Colorado School of Mines with a bachelor of science degree in mining engineering. He and his wife and three children live in Upland.
An environmental impact study done in 1978 was published, as required by federal law, and public comment was solicited. But McDonald said the Forest Service did not publish the final draft of the report. Instead, it was incorporated into the RARE II study, although Curtis' mine and the canyon it rests in do not appear in that study.
Potential Sale Denied
McDonald said he could not explain why the final version of the environmental report did not reach the public, but denied that the Forest Service would sell the claim if Curtis' operation collapsed. "We would close the mine and it would then be wilderness. We wouldn't do anything with it."
Curtis says he finds that difficult to believe, especially since the Bureau of Land Management lists tungsten as a "strategic" mineral.
Tungsten, though important to industry and, to a lesser extent, national defense, is not a glamorous metal. It sells for about $5 a pound when refined and veins of it are indistinguishable from other rock except under special fluorescent lighting.
Curtis said his father did not mine the claim after he discovered it because the price of tungsten was far too low on the world market to make it worthwhile.
Philip T. Stafford, a tungsten specialist with the Bureau of Land Management in Washington, D.C., said the nation's industrial output would be reduced to 15% of its present capacity without tungsten, 66% of which was imported for domestic consumption last year.
Used in Bullets
Because it is very hard and very cheap, the metal is used for high-speed grinding and drilling tools in assembly line equipment and oil wells and for armor-piercing bullets. It also is used as a filament in light bulbs.
Curtis' conflicts with the Forest Service, environmentalists and conservationists have taken almost as many twists and turns as the precipitous, rocky road to the mine's entrance.
The problems began in 1977, three years after he had painstakingly cut the road and begun hauling the rare and valuable ore down the mountainside.
Environmentalists and conservationists objected to his use of the road, saying passage of vehicles along it scattered the sheep, who had shown a decided preference for the area when birthing lambs in the springtime.
In 1982, a federal appellate court, responding to a challenge by a conservationist group called the Society for the Preservation of Bighorn Sheep, ordered the Forest Service to conduct an environmental study of the area to determine the effect of the road on the sheep. The study, completed the following year, determined that the road did not harm the sheep.
Curtis was issued a permit which limited use of the road during lambing season in April, May and June to four round trips a day except between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. The rest of the year, he is limited to 24 round trips a day.
But the decision did not satisfy Curtis' critics, most notably Loren Lutz, president of the Society for the Preservation of Bighorn Sheep.
"Our quarrel is not with Ron Curtis," Lutz said. "Our quarrel is with the Forest Service for giving Curtis a permit to reconstruct an abandoned road right through a lambing area for the bighorn. The sheep can't use the area when trucks are passing through it."
Lutz, whose organization monitors the sheep and works to modify their habitats by building water troughs and transplanting populations, says the population of sheep has declined in the area around the road since Curtis began to use it.
But Lutz said the sheep have overpopulated elsewhere in the Sheep Mountain Wilderness, to the point that the society now promotes legislation to allow hunting of the once federally protected species.
He Sees No Conflict
Lutz said his opposition of Curtis and support of hunting do not conflict, but are simply aspects of modern wildlife management techniques.
"Hunting not only doesn't damage the population, it's good for it," Lutz said. "But repeated passes of vehicles will drive the sheep out." He said pregnant ewes, forced to give birth elsewhere, could lose their lambs to predators.
"They're saying I can't use the road because it harms sheep," he said. "I say shooting them is fairly definite harm."
Curtis balks at the notion that he is an enemy of sheep. "The sheep don't bother me," he said. "It's the people who protect them that bother me."
He recently opposed the conservationists in their support of a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Frank Hill (R-Whittier) last year, making telephone calls to "friends" in Sacramento, he said. The bill was defeated in the Legislature.
Despite the conservationists' protests, the bighorns hardly seemed aware that they were in danger as Curtis maneuvered a surplus 1953 Army ambulance--part of his ancient, ragtag fleet of vehicles--around foothills and down to the rocky floor of Cattle Canyon.
"They know the truck," he said confidently as a large buck placidly watched the vehicle's progress.
Sheep Somewhat Tame
With a top speed of perhaps 15 m.p.h., the dented yellow ambulance is less than menacing, even if the sheep do not have a sense of humor. As it worked its way toward the mill and the nearby shack one miner dubbed the "Curtis Hilton," a few of the congregation of perhaps 30 sheep slowly began ambling away, stopping now and again to look with seeming contempt at the truck.
A few were chewing oil rags. Curtis said they have been known to snack on the fingers of rubber gloves, rubber wiring, wood, metal and plastic. In fact, Curtis said his greatest problem with the sheep is their appetites.
"They eat everything," he said. "They used to get into the mill and eat my tables. That gets expensive. Those things cost about $12,500 apiece."
The tables are actually complex and durable machines that are indispensable in extracting tungsten from the pulverized granite hauled down from the mine.
Shipped to Colorado
The tungsten in its raw, granular state is then hauled to town in barrels and shipped to a Colorado firm where it is processed further.
Curtis said that if he wins the suit, he wants to improve his road so that 25-ton, three-axle trucks can reach the mine. He currently uses a 20-ton dump truck to transport ore from the 300-foot tunnel about a quarter of a mile to his mill on the canyon floor.
Curtis says several large mining companies have offered to buy the mine, but he rejected them because each wanted to own 51%, or controlling interest. Stafford of the Bureau of Land Management acknowledged that there have been inquiries about the claim from a few large companies.
Said Curtis: "I told them to get back on the plane, we're done talkin'."
Although he acknowledges that mining the claim privately with added restrictions will be difficult, Curtis, the man Stafford called a "hard-nosed prospector type" says he won't sell out.
"People wonder why I don't sell it," Curtis said. "Why sell it when you can mine it?"