feed the new gold rush
forests are home to the hopes of many miners to hit a new Mother Lode
SUMPTER -- Ignoring the sinister words, "Bad Air," scrawled on the splintery boards of the old mine shaft, miner Bill Wells, 72, peers into the darkness.
Back behind a cave-in and an actual pocket of lethal air is a vein of yellow gold, he says. The early hardrock miners who honeycombed this mountain with horizontal drifts, as the tunnels are called, didn't get it all.
"They just scratched the surface here," said Wells, who with partner David Rogers, 57, bought the defunct Bald Mountain-Ibex mine near Sumpter in 1990. They hope to reopen it soon. "There are millions of tons of virgin ore in this mountain," Wells said.
Wells and Rogers are among an estimated 300 miners who hold or operate roughly 500 mines and placer operations on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest of northeastern Oregon, according to the U.S. Forest Service. About 400 others were prospecting this summer: "Just looking, trying to find the mother lode," said Mike Doran, a Forest Service mining geologist in Baker City.
Last year, miners extracted an estimated 1,243 ounces of gold worth $348,000 from the Wallowa-Whitman. The forest has the heaviest mineral activity of any national forest in Oregon and Washington, Doran said.
The thickly wooded mountains and canyons along the boundary of Baker and Grant counties are pocked with old and new mineral claims, tunnels, shafts and stopes. This is a land of jackleg drills, dredge tailings and ghost towns, a place where gold stampedes, claim jumpers and tragic cave-ins became the stuff of legend. Long-abandoned mines carry romantic names such as Last Chance, Golconda, Imperial, Argonaut, Monument, North Pole, Mile High, Maiden's Dream, Goldbug Grizzly and Cracker Creek.
The culture of mining might be more than 100 years old here, but it still has a grip on local people: "We have a friend here who for years has dealt in nothing but gold dust," Wells said. "If he buys a pickup and you ask him how much he paid, he says eight. He means 8 ounces. The merchants don't mind taking it."
Wells' and Rogers' base of operations is Sumpter, a 19th-century boomtown that once boasted 3,000 residents, 16 saloons, six churches and an opera house but now has a population of 175. Legend has it that 10,000 people regularly descended on Sumpter on Friday and Saturday nights from the surrounding diggings to drink, brawl and blow off steam.
Wells has a business degree from California State University at Chico and worked for U.S. Plywood Corp., later Champion, for 22 years before getting into mining in 1972. He is fond of quoting Mark Twain's dictum that a mine is a hole in the ground owned by a liar. Rogers is an Ohio native and attorney who used to pal around with attorney F. Lee Bailey and singer John Denver before becoming infected with gold fever 20 years ago.
"I found there was a little niche between the little prospector running around and the major mining companies," Rogers said.
Their dilemma, like most small miners, has been high costs and low return. Gold prices lately have hovered around $280 an ounce, compared with $800 for a brief period in 1980. Development costs, meanwhile, have shot into the stratosphere.
"If you are looking at developing an underground system of any size, you'd better be prepared to drop $50 million on the table and be able to walk away from it," said Mark Ferns, a regional geologist with the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries in Baker City.
Efforts to halt environmental degradation and save the bull trout, listed as threatened by the Endangered Species Act on July 10, 1998, also raised the table stakes for gold mine development. Merely to prospect on U.S. Forest Service land requires a "Notice of Intent," and operating mechanized equipment requires a "Plan of Operation" that can cost $50,000 to draw up and get approved, the agency said. Miners also must post a bond of as much as $25,000.
The Bald Mountain-Ibex mine dates to 1894, when this corner of Oregon still was a wild frontier. The last ore was taken out in 1956, but during the 1980s, American Copper and Nickel and Nerco spent $12 million to $15 million plumbing its gold reserves before selling the old shafts and tunnels.
Mining is the one industry that can make a millionaire and a pauper of the same person in the space of a week. Wells became fabulously wealthy for a day or two when the price of gold shot to $800 an ounce in May, 1980. The price jump catapulted the value of the gold reserves he controlled to about $400 million, and then the price went into a tailspin and never recovered.
If gold hits $350 an ounce, Wells and Rogers figure they can re-open the Bald Mountain-Ibex mine, hire a crew of 20 to 40 workers and make a profit. And they think there's a good chance of that within a year or two, what with the recent financial crisis in Asia and an unsteady domestic stock market.
Then the real work starts.
"It's a hard life," Wells said. "Mining is hard, hard work to get an ounce of gold out of the rock."
By Richard Cockle
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