Gold miners working the ground in Alaska's vast eastern Interior are railing against proposed Bureau of Land Management restrictions on mining in the area.
Miners who work near the towns of Eagle and Chicken in the Fortymile Mining District said they believe the proposal is the latest example of federal intervention intended to kill mining in the region. But BLM says it is only reviewing previously protected areas and making new determinations on their future, and claims its latest resource management plan could potentially open more land than it would close.
BLM is currently reviewing public comments on its proposed plan to permanently protect 675,000 acres of land near the Canadian border from mining. Much of the land is already off-limits to mining and has been since the 1970s, after a decision by the secretary of the interior, but BLM said that after reviewing its plan for the area, the land needs enduring protections.
The proposal would increase the size of an already existing Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) and add two more. It's an effort the agency said is being made to protect caribou, moose and Dall sheep calving areas.
But in the management plan, BLM also proposes opening about half of the 2 million acres in the Fortymile District to mining -- areas outside the proposed ACECs, but currently closed under the 1970s withdrawal by the Interior Department.
Even if BLM's plan is approved by its director, the lifting of the 1970s withdrawal would need to be approved by current Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. Jewell has had a contentious relationship with pro-development Alaskans in recent months, as a driving force behind plans to declare a majority of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness and blocking development of nearly 10 million acres in Alaska's Arctic seas.
The possibility that some lands could be withdrawn from future mining comes after the same mining district saw a controversial EPA task force sweep into the tiny town of Chicken in August 2013 to check for violations of the Clean Water Act. So far, no charges have been filed against any of the 30 or so area mines visited unannounced by the federal task force.
Miners said the pending decision by BLM to remove more lands from mining in the Fortymile Mining District, along with recent tightening of the agency's rules for small placer mines, amount to unrestricted warfare against the area's 100 or so miners.
"It's not unrelated at all. It's all tied together," said miner David Likins. "Their (federal agencies') endgame is making a push to ensure that they will succeed in their goal in ridding the entire area of mining by attrition."
Likins said recent changes to the requirements for reclamation -- the work done to an already-mined area to help return it to its natural state -- plus changes to the way small mining outfits can access pooled bonds used to ensure an area will be reclaimed, and economic validity exams required before any new mining can take place will ultimately end mining in the area. The changes will mean miners will have to spend more money before they can mine.
?Eventually, under the new BLM rules, new mines won't be profitable, and current miners will dig through all the ground they have left in the Fortymile District, ending generations of small family mining in the area, Likins claimed. The Fortymile Mining District is one of the oldest continually mined areas in Alaska, producing gold since 1898.
Likins claimed the only reason mining continues in the Fortymile District is because of support from the state's congressional delegation and governor's office.
And while Senator Lisa Murkowski's office doesn't agree that the EPA's 2013 actions and BLM's proposals are related, it opposes the agency's ACEC expansion plan.
"Senator Murkowski has concerns about the size of this withdrawal," said Robert Dillon, communications director for the Senate Energy Committee and a spokesperson for Murkowski. "It is yet another withdrawal of Alaska federal lands. You add them up, there's quite a few lately, from several agencies."
State mining advocates also believe there exists an organized federal effort to make it economically infeasible to mine in the Fortymile District. Changes to agency definitions and changes to agency policies, called instructional memorandums, are making it harder for small placer miners to make a living, according to Alaska Miners Association executive director Deantha Crockett.
"There are a number of different things going on with BLM that are impacting mining in this area," Crockett said. "All of these little changes in regulations, the miners can't keep up with all the changes. It's like death by a thousand cuts."
As for the proposed mining withdrawals and openings in the draft resource management plan, Crockett said, she is concerned that BLM did not take into account any mineral potential in the area and focused only on wildlife resources when making its plans.
BLM admits the land that could be opened to mining in the proposed RMP is of low mineral potential, meaning it's unlikely to yield much gold. But BLM planning and environmental coordinator Jeanie Cole said most of the better mining lands had already been taken as part of statehood land conveyances and under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act by the state and area Native corporations. Cole said most of the remaining lands under BLM's control in the Fortymile District were of similar low mineral potential.
Regardless of mineral potential, Cole said the BLM is charged with management of all resources, including mineral ones, to the maximum sustained yield. But that sometimes means making tough choices, Cole said.
"It's a balancing act between all the different public interests," Cole said. "And that creates a lot of internal conflict within BLM's mandate."
BLM's ACEC change proposal has already been through a public comment period and a decision will be issued by the BLM director sometime in 2016, according to the agency. But before that can happen, there will be at least two more opportunities for both state government officials and the public to weigh in on the plan.
"We will release the final environmental impact statement and that's subject to a protest period," Cole said. "And people can protest it to the director of BLM and the Alaska governor has a consistency review to see if it (BLM's plan) is consistent with state laws and policies."
Even if it is ultimately approved by the BLM director, Cole said, the plan to create ACECs and permanently lock up 675,000 acres from mining would then need approval from both houses of Congress.