After Armed Standoff, Sugar Pine Mine at Impasse in Court

The 19th century gold mine that sparked a 2015 militia standoff is now the subject of a federal lawsuit. On Wednesday, a judge heard arguments from miners and the government on cross motions to dismiss.

Hills in the Oregon Outback. (Chris Marshall/CNS)

MEDFORD, Ore. (CN) — Two men behind the Sugar Pine Mine, site of a 2015 standoff that foreshadowed a more organized militia movement, argued in court Wednesday that the government can’t stop them from building on their gold claim, which sits on public land near the headwaters of the Rogue River.

George Backes and Rick Barclay say their claim on a southern Oregon gold mine dates back to 1876, and thus skirts regulations under the 1955 Surface Resources Act. The pair says that means the Bureau of Land Management can’t prevent them from the construction work necessary to work their claim.

The government doesn’t dispute the men’s mining claim. But because the mine is on public land, the BLM says the men still have to get their construction plans approved ahead of time. 

In March 2015, the BLM issued two notices of noncompliance to the men, detailing the developments near the mine, which included two camping trailers, a cabin, a water pipe system, a bulldozer, a no trespassing sign, various mining equipment and an armed guard watching over the whole thing.

Backes and Barclay filed a notice of appeal — after they asked for help from local members of the Josephine County Oath Keepers, a militia group riled up from the previous year’s standoff in Nevada, where armed men forced the Bureau of Land Management to back down from its mission to round up the cattle Cliven Bundy grazed on public land for decades without paying grazing fees.

The Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, members of the Pacific Patriots Network — all groups that would participate in the 2016 standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge — answered the call. 

Operation Gold Rush was afoot. Several hundred self-described patriots, many heavily armed, patrolled the mining claim for weeks. Pocket Constitutions were waived around. In May, the Interior Board of Land Appeals issued a stay of the non-compliance order, pending its own decision. The patriots declared a win, and the militias went home.

Since then, Backes and Barclay have continued mining, and continued the construction around their claim. What they haven’t done is clear that construction with the BLM. In 2019, the pair sued the government in federal court, claiming it has no right to prevent those actions. Both sides filed motions to dismiss. On Wednesday, Magistrate Judge Mark Clarke heard arguments.

Representing Backes and Barclay, attorney James Dole said Wednesday that preventing his clients from building a fence, posting “no trespassing” signs and installing a watchman amounted to “open season” on their gold claim.

“Any member of the public would just assume that anything they find is just open to the public,” Dole said. “That’s interference with their possessory rights.”

But U.S. Attorney Sean Martin told Clarke the issue isn’t whether Backes and Barclay have a valid claim to mine, or even necessarily that they can’t build there. He said the issue is that the pair avoided the legally required step to get their construction approved so the government can ensure they aren’t damaging public land.

“It doesn’t even matter whether someone has a mining claim at all,” Martin said. “What matters is, it’s public land. What is the person doing on public land?”

Martin said a ruling allowing people with unpatented mining claims, like Backes and Barclay’s, to go unregulated could allow harm to public land in thousands of cases.

In an oblique reference to the 2015 standoff, Dole brushed off the idea that the government could claim Backes and Barclay had called on the militias in an attempt to bully their way past the BLM.

“To the extent that anybody could conceive of that as intimidation and threats, much less intimidation and threats that have any bearing on the outcome of this case, I think that’s exaggeration,” Dole said.

Judge Clarke, a magistrate, said he would issue a report and recommendation for the district judge to rule on “as soon as we can get it out.”

“It’s an important case, because I know it affects people beyond just the people here at issue,” Clarke said.

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