White Mountains mining plan draws scrutiny

Jeff Richardson

FAIRBANKS -- The Bureau of Land Management has released a new alternative to a land management plan that would allow mining in a portion of the White Mountains National Recreation Area.

The federal agency said the proposal isn't its preferred alternative for land management in the 1 million acre recreation area. The proposal still is causing concern among some who fear mining isn't compatible with an area that has become a playground for skiers, hunters, snowmachiners and other users.

"It wouldn't be that pristine area we're used to going to," said Darcie Warden, the Alaska Wilderness League's BLM outreach coordinator.

"It's that area in our backyard that we can drive to and have a wilderness experience."

The new alternative is a supplement to the Eastern Interior Draft Resource Management Plan that BLM first released last March. Commentators to that plan challenged the exclusion of mining as a possible use in the White Mountains, saying BLM had misinterpreted the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act when it came to the conclusion that mining was prohibited there.

After taking another look, BLM agreed. It released a revised plan Jan. 11 that would allow mining on about 16 percent of the recreation area. Portions of the White Mountains previously have been active gold mining areas, but no active claims remain.

"The most recent heyday, if you want to call it that, was in the '70s and '80s," said Jeanie Cole, BLM's local planning and environmental manager. "It's kind of tapered off since then."

The Citizens' Advisory Commission on Federal Areas was among the groups that requested that BLM take a new look at mining in the area. Stan Leaphart, CACFA's executive director, said he believes BLM's earlier decision was an honest misinterpretation of a complex issue, not an effort to derail the possibility of mining in the area.

No mining companies are pursuing claims in the White Mountains now, but there are reasons to believe the area could generate fresh interest. Rare earth minerals, which are in growing demand because of their use in high-tech products, have been found in old core samples from some areas in the White Mountains.

The mining option would allow leasing on 149,000 acres with medium and high potential for placer gold deposits and 11,000 acres with the rare-earth elements lanthanum, praseodymium, cerium and neodymium.

"With the impetus today on rare earth elements, this shows the greatest concentration of rare earth metals in the Interior," said Karl Gohlke, executive director for the Fairbanks branch of the Alaska Miners Association. "That's the motivation for opening this up."

Warden said even a slim possibility that the White Mountains could be reopened to mining is concerning. The area is just starting to recover from previous mining activity, she said, and a new round of leases could have impacts on trails and streams.

She said that possibility is troubling in an area that has been so well-run in recent decades.

"The way BLM has been managing the White Mountains up to this point is phenomenal," Warden said. "I really have to commend them for taking care of it."

Leaphart said CACFA hasn't taken a position on whether mining should be allowed in the White Mountains. But they feared that mistakenly excluding it as an alternative could complicate a process that has already stretched on for years, he said.

"There's definitely potential up there," Leaphart said. "Is it something that they'd find compatible with the recreation area? That's what this process is all about."

The mining option is in the Alternative D version the draft plan. The BLM's "preferred alternative" is Alternative C, which doesn't allow mining leasing in the area.

Comments on the plans are due by April 11. BLM also plans to conduct a series of still-unscheduled public meetings in February.

A new land management plan is expected to be implemented in 2014, Cole said.

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner