Mine brings Humboldt County family
wealth, then threat of bankruptcy

by Dan 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," says Woody.
"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 parties.'
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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they can't 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 than

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 whole question.
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 negligible.
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 Schrempp.
"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 cleanup.
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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