Mining--a Golden Opportunity for Squatters?

Times Staff Writer

“Tell the Forest Service to go to hell,” fumed the old gold miner, swearing that he would never give up the claim he has mined for 40 years up on Humbug Creek.

“They’ll have to take me out of here feet first,” said Emmett Ward, 85, one of the more than 200 people notified by the Klamath National Forest that unless they could prove the validity of mining claims, they would be evicted from the forest as squatters. Many, like Ward, have lived for decades on these remote claims.

The notices, mailed by the U.S. Forest Service in January, gave the claimants 90 days to prove the validity of their claims and that living on the site was an essential part of the mining operation. Otherwise, they would be ordered off the land.

The letter touched off a storm of protest in mining districts from Happy Camp to Forks of the Salmon. With the help of the Western Mining Council, a nonprofit lobby for small miners, 172 claim residents have appealed the notice, which allows them to stay on the land for the six months or more it will take to complete the appeal.

The council contends that the appellants’ right to live on the claims is protected by the 1872 mining law that opened public lands to prospecting and mineral development.


But so far, the Forest Service has refused to budge. The Forest Service agrees that the 116-year-old mining act allows anyone to seek and develop mining properties on forest lands outside wilderness areas. A prospector who makes a discovery can stake one or more 20-acre claims at no cost. Such claims are for mineral rights only, however; the surface rights remain open for other public uses, officials explained.

“We favor and encourage mining,” said Richard Ober, Klamath Forest resources officer. “But we’re not dealing here with a mining issue. . . . We’re dealing with unauthorized occupancy of public lands.”

The controversy over who can and can’t live on mining claims is not a new one, nor is it unique to this forest. From the Sierra Nevada to the Rockies, similar conflicts have popped up from time to time all over the West.

In 1975 more than 2,000 unauthorized mining claims were reported in the 17 federal forests in California. That was the year the Forest Service ordered a crackdown on what was then labeled “occupancy trespass.”

Many of the disputed sites were played-out claims that had been purchased or re-staked by urban residents who wanted a summer cabin. In addition, a Forest Service newsletter identified other “urban exiles” who had moved onto mining claims to operate marijuana plantations.

Enforcement of the mining laws, on a case-by-case basis, has reduced the number of unauthorized claims to approximately 800, regional officials report. Some of the 2,000 occupants were legitimate miners and were allowed to remain on their claims; others left voluntarily; a few had to be forcibly evicted.

However, the problem is still acute in the Klamath National Forest of Northern California.

Most of the disputed claims are located along wild, scenic rivers that flow through the spectacular canyons of the Siskiyou Mountains and the Trinity Alps. These are rugged areas of winding dirt roads, without electricity or telephone service, a place where independence is prized and government intrusion is not welcome.

Some of the folks are full-time miners. Some pan for gold part time and work “downtown” in Yreka and still others are living out their last years on the claims, supported by Social Security checks and what gold they can dig. A few live on welfare and grow marijuana, rangers say.

These mountaineers all carry vials of placer gold in their jeans and talk about sluice boxes and dredgers. They hunt for pockets of gold in the hills and tell how Robert Cooley, 63, found a streak of paydirt that yielded 43 ounces, worth nearly $35,000, in 1980.

Cooley lives with his 93-year-old mother in a run-down cabin on a claim that his parents bought in 1932. Most years, he says, he takes out only a few ounces of gold. Fiercely independent, he said, “I don’t like being called unauthorized. . . . We didn’t have to be authorized when we came here. . . . They can go to hell with all that paper work.”

The “paper work” involves proving that a claim contains valuable minerals, Ober explained. And it requires that the miners conform to the complex mining and environmental protection laws passed by Congress in recent years. The problem is that some miners, like Ward, haven’t followed the new rules and, as a result, are living on the claims illegally, Ober said.

Small Operators

While this country historically was rich in placer gold, no big mines or dredges are in operation. Most of the 4,500 claims in the 1.7-million-acre forest are worked by small-time operators who dredge the creeks and rivers hoping to find a few dollars’ worth of gold in every ton of rock and gravel they shovel through their sluice boxes.

Until this year the occupancy trespass problem had a low priority in the Klamath Forest, rangers here acknowledge. Then, to speed up the abatement process, the Forest Service sent out the blanket notice to approximately 210 unauthorized occupants.

Mining council officials agree that something had to be done to rid the forest of squatters who are not miners. An ad-hoc committee was formed in 1984 by the council and the regional forester to identify unauthorized occupants and to work out ways to keep the legitimate miners on their claims.

“We were going to help the forest kick off the bad guys and make it legal for the rest to remain on their claims,” said Tom Payne, who represented the mining council on the committee. Part of the agreement was to leave the old-timers alone, he said. The January notice violated that understanding and infuriated the council, according to Payne, who is president of the council’s Los Angeles chapter.

Since the letter went out, the work of the ad-hoc committee has been halted, Payne said. He and other council leaders are trying to find some ground for compromise, but the local miners are not in a compromising mood.

“I took it very personal when they called me a squatter,” said David Spence, 35, who has mined full time in the Humbug and Salmon River areas for 14 years. “They back-stabbed us with that letter.”

Gets Two Letters

Mike Inman, 40, a full-time miner and president of the mining council’s Klamath River Chapter, got two letters because he owns one claim and leases another. He said, “They threw me in with the pot growers and squatters and I resent that.”

Some legitimate miners did get notices because they were either working claims without federally approved operating plans, or their plans didn’t include Forest Service permission to live on the site, Ober said.

Most of the disagreements focus on the occupant’s right to remain on the claim. The Forest Service contends that a miner can live on the claim only if such occupancy is essential to the mining operation.

While the miners appeal the notice, there are some signs that the Forest Service may be modifying its position, at least in one of the most controversial cases.

For 15 years Virginia Russell, 60, has been fighting to stay on her claim on Humbug Creek. In 1980 a federal judge agreed with the Forest Service and declared her claim invalid. She was dragged out of her house and off the claim by federal marshals, but not before she bit one on the hand. Rangers demolished her home and outbuildings.

“Our contention was she had made no (gold) discovery, that she was not there to mine--she filed (the claim) in bad faith,” said Harry Frey, minerals officer for the forest.

Russell parked a house trailer on her claim in 1984 and moved back in, resisting the Forest Service’s renewed efforts to evict her.

Validity Accepted

After inspecting her claim this spring, Ranger John Greer finally agreed to its validity. He granted her permission to live in the trailer and work her claim, if she puts up a $200 bond to guarantee restoration of any environmental damage caused by her mining.

“She showed me she is acting in good faith,” Greer said. He said that if Russell is unable to put up the $200 bond, he would accept assurance from the mining council that it guarantees the restoration work.

Some of the miners back in the hills say this may be a sign that the Forest Service is softening its position. But others, like Ward, are skeptical. He said, “I don’t trust ‘em or want anything to do with ‘em.”