RAPID CITY, S.D. (CN) - The gold rush in the Black Hills of South Dakota 140 years ago drove Sioux tribes from their land and culminated with the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Now miners are taking on the federal government, which wants to ban mining in parts of Black Hills National Forest.
The National Forest Service wants to bar mining on 17,000 acres at 11 sites: four research areas and seven botanical areas - and recreational prospectors don't like it.
"These areas were designated because of their relatively pristine condition and unique plant and animal species assemblages," the Forest Service says .
The Forest Service will not make the final call. It will send its recommendations to the Bureau of Land Management for a decision.
Forest Service botanist Chelsea Monks told Courthouse News the sites at issue were designated research and botanical areas subject to restriction 10 years ago. Motor vehicles and livestock grazing already are limited and regulated on the sites. Monks said the proposed ban on mineral claims is simply the next step in protecting the land.
"Some of the sites are set aside as a network of ecology that is somewhat untouched by human activity, so those are kind of our 'control' areas. They give us a benchmark to see what the habitat looks like without active management," Monks said. "Some of the botanical areas also have a concentration of rare plants."
If approved, new mineral claims would be barred. Old claims will be honored if a Forest Service mineral examiner determines them to be valid, Monks said.
The restrictions would apply to just 2 percent of the Black Hills National Forest, but local prospectors say they contain some of the best sites for amateur gold mining.
James Van Hout, president of the Northern Hills Prospectors, attended a Forest Service meeting about the proposal in October.
"Their geologist made a statement that there weren't any valuable minerals in these areas," Van Hout said. "I told him the only way to know is to put boots on the ground and get dirty and dig - not from behind a desk. The fact is, there were 150,000 ounces of gold mined in the Bear Gulch Mining Region from 1879 until World War II. Of that amount, all but 300 ounces was mined by the pick-and-shovel miners like us."
Monks said the Forest Service is assessing the area for its mineral potential, which will be taken into consideration by the Bureau of Land Management.
"We're still in the beginning stages," Monks said: gathering information, preparing documentation and taking comments from the public, including prospectors.
Van Hout claims that amateur mining has minimal impact on the environment.
"The amateur or pick-and-shovel miner disturbs usually less than ¼ of an acre of surface. When he finds the area he will dig until he runs out of paydirt. He may have dug a hole about 10 feet wide by 10 feet long and maybe 4 or 5 feet deep over a period of two or three years," Van Hout said. "When the paydirt plays out, he then will reclaim the area, planting new grass according to the Forest Service specs and find a new place on his claim to dig.
"There is unwarranted concern about small scale-miners. We stay small and disturb little and we care very much for the land. It gives us its treasure, and we do our best to help keep it clean by removing heavy metals such as mercury left by the old timers or as it appears naturally, fishing lead weights and other metals left in the creeks or banks.
"Everything we have in this world either has to be grown or mined," Van Hout said. "Every manmade item on this planet falls into one or the other category. Your cellphone, computer, iPad, TV and close to 90 percent of the car you drive comes from mining. The environmentalists would love to close down mining completely in this country. Pray that never happens or you will be paying $5,000 for your next cellphone."
The Black Hills Prospecting Club also issued a call to action on its website: "If you value your right to prospect on public land, then it is imperative that you make your voice heard. Numbers do count."
The club asked prospectors to contact the Bureau of Land Management by Dec. 23 to oppose the mining restrictions.
Monks expects the Forest Service documentation to be complete by the fall of 2016. After that, the Secretary of the Interior has until September 2017 to rule on the proposal. If enacted, the restrictions would be in place for at least 20 years.
The Black Hills gold rush began after Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer led the 7th Cavalry into the Dakotas in 1874. The United States had promised the land to the Sioux. But gold was discovered in increasing quantities, and soon thousands of Anglos were there, displacing the Sioux from their ancestral land. Deadwood, built almost overnight, became a boom town and a center of the gold rush.
Custer, whose autobiography reveals him as a fanatic racist, led a campaign of extermination against the Sioux. It ended on June 25, 1876, at the Little Bighorn.
Less than two months later, Wild Bill Hickock was shot to death as he played poker in a Deadwood saloon, holding two pair, aces and eights, still known as the dead man's hand.
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