Udall: BLM Should Challenge Mining Claims in Middle of Arkansas River, Proposed Browns Canyon National Monument

Suction dredge with sediment plume
Suction dredge with sediment plume

Here’s the release from US Senator Mark Udall’s office:

Mark Udall, chairman of the U.S. Senate National Parks Subcommittee, said two pending mining claims located in the Arkansas River and his proposed Browns Canyon National Monument, show the urgent need for Congress to act and protect this area — the most popular rafting destination in the country. Udall urged the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to quickly challenge these mining claims in court.

“Over the past 18 months the people of Chaffee County have told me that Browns Canyon and the Arkansas River are two of the most important economic drivers in Chaffee County. That’s why the BLM must swiftly challenge these two mining claims. Mining on the river could destroy the pristine water quality and scenery that has made Browns Canyon one of the top rafting and fishing destinations in the country. It also could be disastrous for Chaffee County, its economy and the businesses that count on the river,” Udall said. “These claims also underscore the urgent need for Congress to join me in passing my community-driven bill to protect Browns Canyon for future generations. Without a national monument designation and the grassroots protections my bill includes, Browns Canyon could lose many of the qualities that have kept Coloradans — myself included — coming back year-after-year for its unique mix of whitewater and wilderness.”

The two mining claims were filed when a September 2012 Interior Board of Land Appeals decision temporarily removed mining protections for Browns Canyon and some other lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management across the country.

Udall’s bill would create the Browns Canyon National Monument, covering 22,000 acres between Salida and Buena Vista, including 10,500 acres of new wilderness. The bill reflects the input of local businesses, residents, ranchers and other stakeholders.

From the Chaffee County Times (Maisie Ramsay) via The Mountain Mail:

A trio of gold panning enthusiasts has found themselves caught up in Sen. Mark Udall’s push to create Browns Canyon National Monument. Udall called on the Bureau of Land Management this week to “challenge” mining claims in the Arkansas River and his proposed Browns Canyon National Monument.

“Mining on the river could destroy the pristine water quality and scenery that has made Browns Canyon one of the top rafting and fishing destinations in the country,” Udall said in a press release that characterized the claims as potentially “disastrous” for Chaffee County.

The three men who hold the claims, however, have a different take.

Cañon City resident Dan Scavarda and his cousin Tom Tella bought four mining claims covering 80 acres near their property at Chateau Chaparral, a recreational vehicle campground in Nathrop. The pair described themselves as amateur gold panners who had never owned a mining claim before. They planned to follow the lead of other prospectors using dredges to glean the precious metal from the riverbed.

“We’re not gold miners. We’re not looking for profit, we’re just recreational guys,” Scavarda said, describing the dredge they planned to use as a “lawnmower on a vacuum cleaner.”
The idea, Scavarda said, was to “get off the porch, mosey on down to the river, piddle around and then go have lunch.”

“We wanted to have a little motor to make it easier on us because we’re old,” Scavarda said. “That’s all we’re looking for.”

Tella echoed Scavarda’s remarks.

“The way we filed our plan was just to do a little dredging … more of a hobby than any mining activity, so to speak,” Tella said.

Wallie Robinson said he intends to use his 20-acre claim south of Nathrop in a similar fashion. Robinson makes his living in part by selling mining claims and advertises Arkansas River claims for sale on his website. However, he said his goal with the Arkansas River No. 5 placer claim is to provide a gold-panning venue for his Pic-N-Pan Prospecting Club.

“We’re not looking to bring big equipment in. We’re looking for a place to pan for gold,” Robinson said.

The size of the equipment is not the issue, said Udall spokesman Mike Saccone.

“They could sell or transfer the claim to someone who wants to do larger-scale mining that could be disruptive,” Saccone said.

Saccone also pointed to the fact that the claims were issued through a loophole in the BLM’s permitting process created by a September 2012 decision by the Interior Board of Land Appeals. That assertion was confirmed by BLM spokesman Steve Hall.

“The IBLA decision opened up areas to claims that the BLM had previously determined to be unsuitable for mining claims, like Browns Canyon,” Hall said. “This temporarily opened the Browns Canyon area to mining claims. BLM has since initiated the process to close Browns Canyon to future claims.”

This vulnerability is exactly why Browns Canyon needs the permanent protections afforded by Udall’s national monument legislation, said Keith Baker, Friends of Browns Canyon executive director.

“The issue is not what these gents would do, but what someone might do who buys that mining claim,” Baker said. “This helps illustrate our concern that the resource is protected in a more permanent way – there is vulnerability there.”

Udall has called on the BLM to “swiftly challenge” the claims.

Tella expressed surprise at Udall’s opposition, given the location of his claims. “Well, there’s a 300-campsite trailer park right there,” he said, referring to Chateau Chaparral. “It’s not like it’s in the middle of Browns Canyon in a real pristine area.”

Tella and Scavarda said they are still working with the BLM to reach a compromise on the use of a dredge.

“They said we would be allowed to use the claims without any motorized equipment, but you can do that on public land anyhow,” Tella said. “We have claims, so it should give us more rights. That’s the issue we’re struggling with.”

The BLM has not decided whether to heed Udall’s call to contest the claims, Hall said.

“The BLM has not determined a course of action of the recent claims in Browns Canyon,” he said.

Udall introduced his official legislation creating Browns Canyon National Monument Dec. 10. The bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

More Arkansas River Basin coverage here.

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