Desert Gold: Part III

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On a smaller scale, recreational prospecting is thriving throughout the West—especially in its desert regions. Instead of a scruffy dusty burro packed with dried beans, a slab of salt pork and the necessary tools of the trade, contemporary desert prospectors and their families most often travel comfortably to their claims in air-conditioned off-road vehicles or plush RV motorhomes with an ATV in tow—hauling with them enough Costco provisions to feed an army. Dry washers and state-of-the-art metal detectors—implements that would be the envy of prospectors from days past—aid these contemporary hobbyist miners in their quest to “strike it rich.” The most committed participants locate only a few golden perks every now and then so their main draw to this outdoor activity seems to be the superb desert scenery.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) officially recognizes “casual use mining” which allows participants to locate and collect valuable metallic minerals on active claims within designated public lands as long as collectors cause only “little or no surface disturbance” where practiced. “Reasonable” quantities of valuable minerals, including gold, silver, agates and stones, may be collected using gold pans or dry washers—a small, hand-cranked or motor-driven piece of machinery that sifts heavier materials from lighter materials.[1] Explosives are not allowed for excavation purposes, nor are mechanized and/or motorized drilling, digging or earthmoving equipment. The BLM monitors casual use mining to make sure these activities do not impact other public recreation and resources, including wildlife.

Desert casual use mining activities differs in many respects from recreational suction dredging, a controversial riparian gold collection method which became so popular in the 2000s that some rivers, such as the Klamath, had dredgers every thirty feet or so in some areas vacuuming the streambed with portable, noisy, gas-or-diesel powered dredging equipment. Recreational suction dredging has the capacity to destroy aquatic habitat for salmon and steelhead, red-legged frogs and other species. Additionally, it has been shown to mobilize and dislodge elemental mercury and other heavy metals back into the stream flow that had been previously deposited in streambed silts from historic mining operations.[2] Consequently, California created a statewide moratorium outlawing the practice in 2009.

The Mojave Nugget discovered by Ty Paulson in 1977.

Desert prospectors instead comb the sands armed with metal detectors and other battery-operated devices to sense the elusive presence of valuable minerals. Once located, material is shoveled by hand and sifted using a dry washer to reveal treasures within unearthed material. More often than not, hobbyist miners scour and work claim sites where previous mining activity has taken place. Keep in mind that the American West has been so thoroughly picked over for gold and other valuable minerals in years past that more successful practitioners have to stake claims in or near mining districts where gold has been previously located.

Indeed, one of the largest gold nuggets ever found in California is known as the Mojave Nugget, a thirteen-pound specimen discovered using a metal detector in 1977 by Ty Paulson in the Stringer Mining District near Randsburg, California.[3] When interviewed for local television in the early 1980s about his past discovery, Paulson remarked that there are two types of people drawn to the hobby: “Nature lovers and get-rich-quickers. The nature lovers get a full return and the get-rich-quickers usually sell their machine for half-price and call people stupid who go prospect.”

Recreational prospecting and casual use mining went mainstream when popular reality television shows such as Discovery Channel’s Gold Rush began airing in 2010. Most practitioners take part as weekend hobbyists while others prospect on a more regular basis for extra cash. Some do so out of economic necessity as subsistence miners. Current gold prices, hovering around $1487 per ounce, don’t seem to hurt either.[4]

A valuable mineral deposit may be claimed by qualified applicants within U.S. public lands if the site in question is open to location and mineral entry and hasn’t been previously withdrawn or patented for such purposes. Currently, there are nineteen states open for the location of placer and lode bearing mining claims or sites in the U.S. The BLM’s California Desert District Office oversees a total of 177,421 mining claims of which 14,956 are currently active.[5] The majority of active Mojave Desert claims are located and administered by the BLM’s Ridgecrest Field Office.

Placer claims are river sands, gravel or dry wash areas in which the mineral being sought originated from a different, higher location. Over time, erosion causes the gold to settle to the lowest point due to its weight. A placer claim may not exceed twenty acres per individual claimant. Maximum size for a group-held placer claim is 160 acres, if at least eight separate locators or persons are listed.

Lode claims are veins, ledges or other rock in place measuring 1500 by 600 feet (20.55 acres) with the vein of the mineral positioned near the center of the claim. Five-acre mill sites for processing ore and/or tunnel sites providing access a lode claim may be located nearby on non-mineral bearing land as separate, non-contiguous claim sites. There is no limit to how many claims and mining sites an individual may hold as long as the maintenance and assessment requirements for each claim have been met on an annual basis.

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Jim Wharff (right) with Tom Koch (left) who received his 25 FCM membership award in 2019. Wharff occasionally camps in the canvas tent similar to those used during the nineteenth century. Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

Location of a claim for casual use mining is the same for commercial mining purposes and involves physically staking the discovery point of the mineral deposit with a conspicuous central monument such as a wood post or a stone cairn at least four inches in diameter and eighteen inches high, plus four additional wood or stone corner or boundary markers. Each corner post indicates the N.E., N.W., S.E., and S.W. position of the claim with the long axis normally running north to south.

Hollow PVC (polyvinyl chloride) pipe tubing used for such purposes were banned during the 1990s because they present a wildlife hazard for nesting songbirds, reptiles, insects and other small wildlife in that birds and animals may become trapped in the uncapped tubing upon entry. During the 1970 -1990 speculative boom in amateur prospecting, PVC tubing was used extensively for claim markers. Alarmingly, some of these markers were later found to contain up to a one hundred deceased birds in a single tube in Nevada. On average five dead birds were found per pipe, primarily Ash-throated Flycatchers (Myiarchus cinerascens) and Mountain Bluebirds (Sialia currucoides). Claim holders were required by the BLM to remove and replace the pipes with solid markers and were given twenty years to comply. Around 2010, volunteers were allowed to knock down and remove any remaining PVC pipe claim markers as it had been assumed that these had been abandoned.[6]

A discovery must be recorded with pertinent claim information including the locator’s name, the name of the claim, location date, claim type, size and a legal description of the location of the mining claim or site along the with a detailed map of the claim. Claimants must record their claim with the governing agency in the county of the location within thirty to ninety days depending on the state where the claim is located. Location and processing fees vary depending on the county and state. In most cases, a copy of the recorded discovery paperwork is placed in a weatherproof tube attached to the discovery marker that rangers and others may access.

Once recorded and maintained, legal interest of a claim may be transferred to another party, in entirety or in part, however it should be noted that the claimant is only allowed “possessory mineral interest” which is not the same as land ownership. To do so, one would need to apply for a land patent, which is no longer available for mining claims as of October 1, 1994. Nor may claimants spend more than fourteen days camping at any mineral claim on public lands within a ninety-day period.

Gold panning along a streambed or other minimally invasive casual use mining activities including limited, non-commercial rock and mineral collection on public lands (where legally allowed), do not require a permit or authorization from the BLM or Forest Service as long as collecting is done primarily on the surface.[7] Any surface disturbance from casual use prospecting and mining activities such as hand digging must be backfilled after exploration and mining activities have ceased. The site must also be cleaned and free of trash of debris that may attract ravens and other animals. Vehicular access is restricted to designated routes only. Like any recreational activity, participants may not disturb perennial vegetation, harm desert tortoises along with their burrows or any other animal. All pits and trenches must have ramps to allow animals to escape unharmed. Any extractive mineral activity causing significant surface disturbance of the land other than casual use requires a plan of operation and reclamation bond determined by the location and activity level of the operation.[8]

The annual maintenance fee for lode and placer claims is currently $155 but as of September 1, 2019 it will be raised to $165. Groups of miners, organized as non-profit mining and prospecting clubs, holding ten claims or less, may apply for a Small Miner Waiver for $15 per claim if they show that they have completed $100 worth of required assessment work in labor or improvements for each claim held by September 1st of each year.

Popular California Mojave Desert destinations for casual use prospecting and mining activities include BLM-maintained public lands in and around Randsburg and the El Paso Range, the Coolgardie and Ord Mountain areas near Barstow, the Virginia Dale Mining District east of Twentynine Palms and Eagle Mountain Mining District east of Joshua Tree National Park. A number of casual use non-profit mining clubs operate within the Mojave Desert including the Hesperia-based Au Mojave Prospectors and Valley Prospectors in San Bernardino, California, who hold a number of claims in the Randsburg, Coolgardie, Cajon Pass and Big Bear (Holcomb Valley) areas. Au Mojave Prospectors’ claims are located in Coolgardie plus one in Hesperia, California. Founded in 1976, Valley Prospectors is the oldest regional clubs with around 400 members.

The non-profit, Yucca Valley-based First Class Miners, Inc. (FCM) maintain several placer claims for such purposes including their Grizzley 4 claims in the Ord Mountain Mining District, the Lucky Nugget and 1st Class claims in the Virginia Dale Mining District and Middle Camp and Middle Camp West claims in the Eagle Mountain Mining District. In the mountains east of Big Bear, FCM maintains the Rattle Snake Placers and Red Cabin claims in Rattlesnake Canyon.

Founded in March 1993, FCM includes men and women, eighteen years and older, from various professions and backgrounds. The club prefers the term “small scale” miners rather than “casual use” to describe their pursuit. FCM membership hovers just under 300 members including spouses and children of enrolled members whose average age is forty to fifty years old. Many of these members are now retired and only 10 percent of their membership actually mines at the organization’s seven claims. Membership drops about 10 to 15 percent every year—often because start-up costs associated with the activity prove to be too expensive or because participants find mining more physically difficult than they imagined. Jim Wharff, the club’s current president, mentions that a few drop out because they expect him or other senior members to show them exactly where to find gold. FCM does provide instructional seminars for new members in the hope they’ll get lucky and some have.

Wharff knows two miners that have found “pounds of gold” in the Virginia Dale Mining District where several FCM claims are located. “I know because I have seen it.” Wharff states.  “Myself, from my claim, I am collecting an ounce and a half per year. I cannot say about others.” The largest nugget that one of their members has found was eight ounces. Other members have located several six, plus many four-ounce specimens.

FCM organizes several small, multi-day group campouts at their various claim sites throughout the year. Besides participating in prospecting and mining activities, they remove trash and debris from claim sites—often left by careless off-roaders and/or campers recreating on or near the claims. Most members agree that socializing, camaraderie and spending time together within remote and scenic wilderness areas outweigh actually locating gold. Among some members there seems to be a role-play aspect—not surprising as several volunteer as Western reenactors in Pioneertown, California, a historic mid-century Western movie set town located just north of Yucca Valley. Wharff, an ex-Marine, looks the part and often chooses to campout in a reproduction of a late nineteenth century canvas tent at their various claim sites when it is not convenient for him to travel out with his toy hauler.

The organization is politically active and their large turnouts provide a strong visual presence with members wearing t-shirts emblazoned with First Class Miners at important public desert land use events such as the 2015 public meeting at Whitewater Preserve, hosted by California Senator Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), in support of the then-proposed Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow and Castle Mountains national monuments. FCM stood in unified opposition against these three monument designations (each were eventually approved by President Obama), including Castle Mountains, the site of the historic Hart Mining District and a more recent, but currently inactive, open-pit heap leach gold mining operation. While Jim and I and sat on “opposite sides of the aisle” politically and also on this issue—we greeted each other warmly at the event.

Looking at these issues from their perspective I can understand their frustrations—with every new national monument designation, mineral exploration and development is withdrawn for such uses. FCM has a legitimate gripe in that their activities are not readily distinguished from large-scale industrial mining operations. Plus, as casual use miners, they are not protected under the 1872 mining law. Ongoing public land debates are also important to Wharff as he considers himself a small-scale professional miner, who doesn’t necessarily earn a living from the several private claims he holds with a partner on public land north of the Virginia Dale Mining District, but feels vulnerable when sweeping changes in public land, use take place and edge him out of areas, including some favored remote destinations within the newly designated Mojave Trails National Monument, that he used to frequent. So, it should not be surprising that he and others like him are angered when bills such as Senator’s (D-CA.) California Desert Protection and Recreation Act, which passed in early 2019, fail to address their small-scale mining pursuits on some level. Perhaps accommodations can be worked out for these casual use desert miners for future public land planning sessions.

The women-owned Mining Supplies and Rock Shop in Hesperia, California, sells prospecting supplies and provides tips for those interested in taking up casual use mining. Banner image of First Class Miner Jim Wharff at the FCM’s Middle Camp Claim in the Eagle Mountain Mining District. This article is co-published with KCET Artbound. Visit Artbound’s Mojave Project page here.

[1] Battery- or gas-powered dry washers under 10 HP are considered legal for casual use mining.

[2] Certain forms of bacteria present in the water column have the ability to transform elemental mercury into toxic methylmercury, which can then enter the food chain.

[3] The Mojave Nugget is part of the Margie and Robert E. Petersen Collection featuring 132 gold nuggets donated to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. The Peterson’s were southern California philanthropists who founded the Petersen Automotive Museum.

[4] As of September 2019.

[5] “California Desert District Office Mining Claims Overview,” The Diggings™, accessed September 15, 2019, https://thediggings.com/usa/blm-admin-areas/ca/cad0.

[6] Jim Boone, “Trapped by hollow-pipe mining claim markers,” Desert Report, March 2019, 16-17.

[7] In some casual use prospecting and mining areas such as the San Bernardino Forest, a Notice of Intent may be required. For more information see: https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprd3823532.pdf.

[8] The California Mining Consultants web page provides an excellent overview of various permits required from various state and federal agencies required for commercial mineral extraction activities in California. See: http://www.caminingconsultants.com/what-we-do/permitting.html.