Bowman & Steve Miller
copyright (c) 1996, Electric Nevada
It was a rich mine,
in its day.
During its 35 years of active operation, the
Buckskin Mine, according to some records, produced 24,000
ounces of gold and 300,000 ounces of silver.
It was 1906 when prospector William John Bell
first filed the claim on Buckskin Mountain -- so-named
because the golden grass across the mountaintop, folks
said, made it resemble tanned buckskin.
Ever since then, the northern Humboldt County
mine has been central to the lives of three generations
of the Bell family.
But while the mine once brought wealth, it now
threatens to bring poverty.
Forest 'Woody' Bell, grandson of William John,
is a rancher now in Paradise Valley, some miles downhill
to the south from the mine and on the way to Winnemucca.
He's being hard-pressed by the U.S. Forest Service to
vacate both the family's mineral claim and two well-kept
cabins on the Buckskin site, which have been used by the
Bells for decades. The cabins provide housing for their
mine operations and a base camp while working cattle on
the surrounding summer range.
According to Bell, the Forest Service does not
want anyone occupying the cabins if the mine is not
actively working. And when Bell resisted the agency's
desire, he says, the federal agency began a pressure
campaign that may eventually put the family -- already
hard hit by recent beef prices -- in bankruptcy court.
The cabins, used by his family at least since
his childhood, says the 59-year-old Bell, are not merely
a historical asset and good shelter from the sometimes
vicious mountain elements, but also in many essential
ways the real family home.
But for decades the federal agencies have been
trying to get the land away from the family, says Woody.
"My mother tried to patent it in about
1969, and they [the Bureau of Land Management] had some
hearings and they turned it down for patenting,"
"It didn't meet their criteria at that
point, they said."
The BLM was working with the Forest Service at
the time, Bell says.
"They just wanted to get it away from her
-- the ground. They took three claims away from her when
they did that, and it included the cabins.
"They gave her back a life-time lease on
the cabins in the spring. It was a little over an acre.
She was so upset, you know, she moved to Canada."
Bell's mother, Marian, still alive and now 88
years old, was known in Humboldt County as an artist of
some reputation. Many of her watercolor and oil paintings
capture views from the Buckskin Mountain cabins.
Bell doesn't know why title to the land never
passed to the family long before 1969. But after his
mother's effort to patent the land failed, he says he
personally filed new mineral claims on the site.
"I'm still dealing with them [the federal
agencies] on that," he says.
One Forest Service response, feels Bell, was
to start focusing its attention on alleged environmental
problems from the old mine's tailings dump.
The mine tailings have been in place,
undisturbed, since 1937, when the mine's mill burned to
the ground. Since that time, no ore has been processed on
the site. Subsequent mining operations -- hauled the ore
to another location for processing.
Despite warnings that disturbing the
stabilized tailings might incur greater environmental
hazard downstream, the Forest Service hired a Boise
contractor, Nelson Construction. to move the mine
tailings. Then the federal agency publically named the
Bell family at the top of the list of legally 'viable
That phrase, explains Elko Forest Supervisor
Scott Bell -- no relation -means liable parties with the
ability to pay for the cleanup. The bill, he says, could
reach as high as $500,000.
Not only is the operation, which pulls tons of
tailings back from the edge of the stream, a very costly
operation, but Bell is also facing a $25,000-a-day
noncompliance fee for not responding to the Forest
Service's requests for his financial statements.
The ranch is barely making ends meet as it is,
and if the Bells have to pay the bill, it could be their
financial ruin. The slumping cattle market has already
stressed the family pocketbook, Woody says, and
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take a half-million-dollar hit.
Documentary photographer Reyna Youngberg, from
neighboring Orovada, said when she was on Buckskin
Mountain taking pictures of the cleanup, three laborers
were working at Davis-Bacon wage rates to take down a
barbed wire fence. In her opinion, she said, the same job
could have been done by one person at half the wages
being paid just one of the contractor employees.
The Forest Service claims the cleanup is
needed because water leaching from the mine is acidic,
with high concentrates of arsenic and heavy metals
polluting the North Fork of the Little Humboldt River.
The agency says it is also concerned about the impact
that a hundred-year flood might have on a tailings pile
next to the stream.
Forest Service supervisor Scott Bell
acknowledges there is no evidence of leaching minerals
poisoning fish or wildlife along the stream. He did say,
however, that there had been some degradation of the food
chain depended upon by what he called "endangered
Lahontan Cutthroat Trout."
Woody Bell responds that, first, the Lahontan
Cutthroat Trout is listed as threatened, rather
endangered, and second, that after
decades of state stocking of the area streams with trout
of other species, there could be no pure Lahontan
Cutthroat Trout left in those waters.
Many residents of Humboldt County also dispute
the Forest Service claims about the water, saying they
have fished immediately below the mine and drunk the
downstream water for years with no ill effects.
The first of the agency's reported samplings
of the naturally occurring minerals from the mine,
one-tenth of a mile below the mine entrance, shows a
concentration of .49 parts per million (PPM) of arsenic,
while the next sample, at two-tenths of a mile, reported
arsenic at .07 PPM. While those readings are above
federal health standards, the second sample is lower that
the .08 to .11 PPM of the city water in Fallon, Nevada,
and the City Engineer says an Alaskan study indicates
arsenic is not harmful even at levels four times those of
the Fallon water. Present-day measuring equipment can
detect infinitely small amounts of elements in water, he
said, and federal standards are often arbitrary.
Forest Service supervisor Scott Bell met in
February of this year with the Humboldt County
Commission, explaining the work proposed to be done on
the Buckskin claim. According to an official report by
the federal agency, county commissioners expressed
support for the project.
However, Humboldt County Commissioner Ron
Schrempp says the Forest Service report is false. He said
the commission did not approve or disapprove of the
action, but instead authorized him to inquire into the
Schrempp met with the Forest Service at the
mine and asked why they couldn't pipe the water around
the tailings and drop it back into the stream. He said
the cost of this common-sense application would have been
He also questioned whether the water was, in
fact, highly acidic. Schrempp said when he washed his
hands in the water, the PH seemed to be about right,
whereas PH at the levels claimed by the Forest Service
would have had a burning effect on the skin.
Concluding that the proposed action was
ridiculous, said Schrempp, he went back from the hilltop
meeting and prepared a draft letter for the county
commission, questioning the scientific validity of the
Forest Service data. However the forceful letter
addressing these issues was not approved by board
members, who instead chose to say the county could not
afford to lose the tax base of the Bell's mine and ranch.
"This is a typical example of how an
individual can be overwhelmed by bureaucracy," said
"They are trying to move a mountain, when
the water should be moved."
As for the theory that a hundred-year flood
could have an impact, Schrempp thinks the Forest Service
may have gotten on the wrong page in the flood manual.
"How do you have a flood on a
mountaintop?" he asks. "The type of flood the
Forest Service was talking about would be a biblical rain
of 40 days and 40 nights."
The Bell family is sitting in the path of
catastrophe if they are forced to pay the bill for the
They say no one, including the American
taxpayer, should have to pay, because the cleanup was not
needed in the first place.
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