The SPMA and PLP have urged the Forest Service to extend the public comment period which began Dec. 5 and ended Jan. 6.
In a phone interview with the Pick & Shovel Gazette Jan. 10, U.S. Forest Service Descanso District Resource Staff Officer Russ Lajoie said that nationally there has been a push to close what are referred to as “undesignated’ roads and trails.
The Forest Service has many terms for the road closures, Lajoie admitted.
“Ecological restoration — that’s the warm and fuzzy version,” he said. “There is all this bureaucratic gobbledygook.”
Roads that are targeted for possible closure in the future are labeled as “undetermined” or “undesignated” roads in Cleveland National Forest.
“There are hundreds of miles of what we call UND roads just in Cleveland National Forest,” Lajoie said.
The four miles of road in contention is called UND 509 at the end of Long Valley Loop Road.
The names of the two claims that could be affected are the Starlight and Long Valley. UND 509 goes right through the Long Valley claim in section 25. This closure will greatly reduce access to the claim. There are three other roads to be closed in the general area, UND 511, UND 513 and UND 518.
Mules or motorized vehicles?
When questioned about the right of miners to use existing roads and trails to access their claims, Lajoie cited the Mining Law of 1872, but admitted he is not an expert on the mining laws.
“All I know is that there are certain inherent rights under the 1872 Mining Law that say — on public lands — reasonable access has to be afforded to the claimants. I know that much,” Lajoie said.
“This has raised an issue that we have to deal with now and in the future. Our intent is not to keep anybody off their claim. Again, we have to provide reasonable access. What is that? Is it a mule? Is it on foot? Is it a wheelbarrow? Or, is it still motorized vehicles?” Lajoie said.
Then, of course, the whole plan is subject to environmental analysis, including the Endangered Species Act.
“We can’t knowingly allow the degradation of a species,” Lajoie said. “We haven’t determined that there is anything out there yet and I don’t suspect there’s gonna be.”
The Forest Service website lists quarterly proposed actions in all the national forests where miners can follow what road closures are planned, Lajoie pointed out. The website is: www.fs.usda.gov/cleveland. Once there, go to Land & Resources Management, Projects and then select Schedule of Proposed Actions quarterly report.
It’s up to the public to stay informed on the proposed road closures and other projects as well as the right to comment and make a case for or against the proposed road closures.
The latest proposed road closures of UND 509 and others have caused quite a stir, Lajoie admitted.
“I’ve been bombarded by emails from the SPMA. So. we’ve got the picture,” he said.
Still, he said it is highly unlikely the public comment period will be extended.
That response does not sit well with the SPMA members, who have accused the Forest Service of trying to slip the road closure proposals under the radar by timing the public comment period right before the holiday season and ending it Jan. 6.
Several SPMA members said they were confused as to whether emailed comments would be accepted or whether they had to be sent by regular mail and got conflicting information and email addresses.
Part of the miscommunication problem seems to be that Lajoie was away on vacation during and after the holidays and was not available to answer questions about the road closures until it was too late to comment.
Lajoie has also discouraged the SPMA from going through with its FOIA request. While it will involve a considerable amount of paperwork for Forest Service and some expense, according to Lajoie, the PLP sees it differently.
For instance, what is the expense to taxpayers for moving boulders, putting up barricades and rewilding these areas? How much gold and other mineral resources are being locked up when miners no longer have access to their claims? How much is the land itself worth to the public? How much enjoyment and freedom will be lost? What is the price tag on all of that?
Wegner contends the FOIA request will shed light on what is really going on in our national forests and on road closures.
Loss of access to public lands
SPMA President Robert “RJ” Wingo said he has been concerned about the loss of public lands for almost four decades, since the federal government passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976.
“My concerns over the way our public lands goes way back over 35 years,” Wingo said. “We would find large boulders blocking the areas that we wanted to get into.”
The explanation Wingo got back then was that the federal government was preserving public lands for future generations.
“The answers that we got from them at first sounded logical,” Wingo said.
But today, he sees things in a completely different light and has asked the federal agencies for answers.
“The future generations want to use it now. When are you going to open it up?’ ” Wingo has asked.
“Their reply is basically, ‘We’re not going to.’ Basically, what they said is ‘Guess what? You were foolish. We lied to you and you accepted our answer.’ So, this is what’s happening again 35 years later. I am seeing more and more of our public lands shut down,” Wingo said. “We keep questioning them, ‘Who is responsible?’ And, we keep getting the runaround. Now, we’ve got the U.S. Forest Service trying to shut down our roads.”
Miners, outdoor groups
The PLP has often asked outdoor groups to stand behind miners, who have a congressionally granted right to access roads and mining claims, as a means of keeping these roads and trails open to the public.
Wingo said it’s time for small-scale miners, hunters, sports fishermen, hikers, bikers, off-roaders and others to come together as one and fight to keep public lands and the roads and trails open for public use.
“We need to organize ... We want the public lands that have been closed
already reopened for our use. We want out lands back! These federal agencies now think that our public lands now belong to them personally,” Wingo said.
“I am mad and so should you be,” Wingo stated in an email sent out to SPMA members: “It’s time to stand up and let the people who are closing down our public lands know we won’t stand for this any more. Remove the boulders, take down the gates and open up our lands!”
Access to Public lands
Chester Nowicki, president of the local Gold Prospectors of America chapter, Treasure Seekers of San Diego, is also a member of the Southwestern Prospecting and Mining Association.
Nowicki, has a knee disability and while the U.S. Forest Service touts itself as an organization that complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the road closures would make it next to impossible for elderly prospectors and those with disabilities to access the SPMA mining claims, Nowicki said.
Under the heading, “The Outdoors Are for Everyone — Fundamentals of Outdoor Recreation and Trails Accessibility,” the U.S. Forest Service website reads: “It’s all about people having the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors. Public lands offer a wide range of recreation settings and opportunities from highly developed campgrounds to untouched wilderness areas.”
The site, www.fs.fed.us/recreation, goes on to explain its commitment to accessibility and why it is important: “The U.S. Forest Service is committed to integrating accessibility into the complete range of recreation opportunities while protecting natural resources and settings so that all people, including people who have disabilities, have the opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors. This commitment is established in Forest Service policy.”
Ironically, the situation has left more than a few miners scratching their heads and asking the question, ‘So, why shut down the roads?’
What happens now?
The PLP has stepped up and is willing to help the gold prospectors affected by the road closures, but the club members have to be willing to help themselves, for that support to continue, Wegner said.
According to SPMA member Lee Darling, the club was informed that the U.S. Forest Service will hold a” closed to the public” meeting to review public comments received and make their decision on the proposed road closures.
Once the decision is posted, there will also be an appeal period, Darling said.
The proposed road closures are listed at: http://www.fs.fed.us/nepa/nepa_project_exp.php?project=43149
Brad Jones is the Managing Editor/Communications Director for the Gold Prospectors Association of America and Lost Dutchman’s Mining Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org