A gold miner and the U.S. Forest Service have squared off over a prospecting site near Ukiah.
The Forest Service contends 68-year-old John Wasson does not have the right to stay year-round at the site, because that would interfere with the public’s access to a scenic portion of the North Fork John Day River. But Wasson said this is just a case of a big government agency picking on the little guy.
“It’s really about rights — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Wasson told the East Oregonian. “I am happy there. I’m not infringing on anybody’s anything.”
Wasson said he tried small-time prospecting a few years ago near Sweet Home, Linn County. He caught a bit of the bug to seek the valuable metal, so he obtained maps from the Bureau of Land Management and decided on a small stretch in Eastern Oregon called Slippery Rock, a 12-acre site on the North Fork John Day River in the Umatilla National Forest. He partnered with six friends and in the fall of 2011 paid $189 to the BLM for rights to prospect. He gave the Forest Service his “notice of intent” for the site on March 16, 2012, and worked out a plan of operations. The Forest Service sent Wasson approval of the plan April 30, 2012.
Wasson said he enjoyed the wilderness, and he and others have found gold in a 1980s-era hole on the south side of the river about 30 feet from the high water mark. Life was good. Then on Sept. 26, a “cold and stormy” day, as Wasson recalled, Chris Helberg, a Forest Service mineral administrator, visited the site. That began a stormy relationship with the feds.
Wasson had two trailers on the site instead of one, as he proposed, and he and some partners were there for five months, far longer than the intermittent stays he proposed. And sanitation and human waste raised red flags for the Forest Service because the camp was within the riparian area of the river and 100 feet from the stream edge.
Robert Varner is the North Fork John Day District ranger.
He said the Forest Service inspects mining sites to make sure miners are complying with state and federal environmental laws and regulations. Prospecting claims such as Wasson’s are not for year-long residence, Varner said, and most prospectors stay on a site no more than several weeks at a time, sometimes with family, and they often fish, hike and use the forest for other recreation, aside from hobby mining.
“We look at prospecting claims in that time frame of impact, and concerns general increase when somebody is staying there longer because of impact to the resources,” Varner said.
In this case, one of the resources is a section of North Fork John Day River that falls under a federal designation as a scenic river. That designation means more stringent use restrictions that keep the river and its shorelines intact and as primitive as possible. Wasson contended his camp and mining operations are not harming the river and the rest of the environment, nor is the camp ruining anyone’s view.
“There’s nothing around me that’s outstanding, and I’m not blocking any view of the pretty land, and I’m not in a riparian zone,” Wasson insisted.
But having his camp there all the time, Varner said, means other people cannot use that public land. National forests are “intended to be available to all of us as a multiple use resource,” he said. Wasson sees it otherwise.
“I paid money to have exclusive rights to that area, and we have not denied anybody access, and we have had perfect strangers camp with us,” he said.
Moreover, he asserted, regulations allow him to be on-site if he is actively mining, and that’s what he contends he does.
Mark Fero is a member Central Oregon Prospectors Association. He said there are a lot of rules and laws about mining, most which stem from the General Mining Act of 1872, the federal law that authorizes and governs prospecting and mining for economic minerals. There also are a host of other laws and policies related to mining, including environmental. He said prospectors and authorities often have a steep learning curve to understand all the laws.
Prospectors need to develop good working relationships with authorities and keep communication open to help resolve a disagreement over a claim, Fero said, but they also must understand rules are rules.
“You basically have to follow them,” Fero said. And when the doesn’t happen, situations such as Wasson’s can arise.
Varner said the Forest Service is trying to work with Wasson, but the ranger also sent a Dec. 6 notice to Wasson to stop all unauthorized use and occupancy of the site and remove all trailers, campers, equipment and personal items by Dec. 16.
“After that date, the continued occupancy and use of public lands without authorization will result in criminal charges,” the noticed warned.
In spite of that notice, Varner said the Forest Service doesn’t want to go that route, and so far hasn’t. Rather than bring down the heavy hand of the law, Varner said, the agency wants to talk with Wasson and educate him on what he can and cannot do at the site.
“We are trying to work with him on finding a solution that is equitable for all of us to the the extent that we can,” Varner said.
“They have never told me what I can do there,” Wasson said. “The have only told me what I can do to leave there.”
Wasson is the unusual case, Varner said, and with more people interested in finding gold, some difficult cases are bound to come up. “It’s just part of working with people and helping them understand their responsibility and what they’re doing and trying to find some middle ground,” he said.
This week Wasson said he moved one trailer, yet worried when he left camp. “That’s my home. If they haul that away, I”m homeless,” he said. And if the Forest Service wants to take him to court, so be it, Wasson said, and “let the judge decide.”
Contact Phil Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0833.
This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.