HELENA, Mont. (CN) – An armed standoff with miners backed by a right-wing militia brought a lawsuit Tuesday from federal prosecutors who say the miners and their supporters are illegally blocking a road in a national forest.
The United States sued George Kornec, Philip Nappo and Intermountain Mining and Refining LLC, claiming they are “unlawfully and illegally interfering with property of the United States” in Helena National Forest in western Montana.
Kornec and Nappo built an unauthorized road and two buildings, one in which unauthorized explosives are being stored for “an individual who was not part of the White Hope [mining] operation, according to the complaint.
That person is not identified in the lawsuit. But the government says that the week after Kornec and Nappo met with Forest Service officials on July 30, and “agreed to remove the explosives currently being stored onsite within two weeks of the meeting,” an armed group of more than 20 people appeared, “apparently at defendants’ request,” and identified themselves as members of the Oath Keepers, “and other related groups.”
The Oath Keepers are not a party to the lawsuit.
On Aug. 3, Kornec, Nappo and Intermountain Mining sent the Forest Service a letter they called a “Notice of No Trespass to the United States Forest Service”. The letter says that “‘(a)nyone entering onto the White Hope Mine, without previous coordination, will be charged’ and arrested,” according to the complaint.
Since 2012, the government says, Forest Service officials have received complaints that “defendants Kornec and Nappo threatened individuals trying to cross the White Hope Mine area unpatented mining claims in order to access adjoining National Forest System lands for recreational purposes. These members of the public were inaccurately and falsely told by defendants that the area beyond an unlocked Forest Service gate was considered private property.”
Kornec and Nappo locked the gate and armed people are refusing to let members of the public and the Forest Service enter, the complaint states.
The Oath Keepers, formed in 2009, is described a “a fiercely antigovernment, militaristic group that improbably claims more than 30,000 law enforcement officers, soldiers and military veterans as members,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has reported on militia groups for years. The center has a Web page devoted to the group and its founder.
Heavily armed members of the Oath Keepers showed up Tuesday in Ferguson, Mo., which was under a state of emergency due to protests that followed shootings from both sides on the first anniversary of the Michael Brown killing.
St. Louis Police Chief called the group “both unnecessary and inflammatory.”
The Oath Keepers posted a different view on their website this morning: “Protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, are getting a lesson on the Constitution, a document most of them seem completely unaware of,” the statement begins.
“The lesson is coming from members of the Oath Keepers organization who showed up in the city Tuesday donning protective vests with handguns holstered on their belts and carrying those rifles with 30-round magazines that so frighten leftist gun grabbers, bed wetters and the social Marxist collectivists elites.”
The group also showed up at the 2014 armed standoff in Nevada between Cliven Bundy and federal officials. Bundy refused for more than a decade to pay fees for grazing his cattle on public land, in defiance of court orders. When heavily armed supporters showed up, the United States government backed down, to prevent violence.
In its lawsuit, the United States asks for an injunction to restrain Kornec, Nappo, the mining company and their supporters from interfering with access to public lands.
The Forest Service has met repeatedly with Kornec and Nappo to discuss their mining claim and associated issues, including unauthorized cutting of timber, water diversion, a collapsed mine opening, their lack of approval for the mine, the explosives, and other items, according to the complaint.
Despite the defendants’ claims, the United States says, Forest Service regulations “establish rules and procedures through which use of the surface of National Forest System lands may be used in connection with operations authorized by the U.S. mining laws.”
“Rights under the mining laws are further subject to regulations which require such operations to minimize adverse environmental impacts on National Forest System surface resources.”
Kornec and Nappo have been interfering with public lands for decades, according to the lawsuit.
In 1986, the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, declared Kornec’s and Nappo’s mining claims, which include the Sammy K and Silver Dollar mines, abandoned and void. They never appealed, but filed for new claims that year on land that is “subject to the Multiple Use Mining Act of 1955,” and require an approved plan of operations, the government says.
The Forest Service notified them in 2014 that their plan of operations for the White Hope mine had expired, and they had violated it by building a garage, cutting down trees, opening a road and a collapsed mine opening without authorization, and creating “substantial surface resource disturbance.”
The Forest Service says it offered to help them comply with the rules, for instance, telling them they could get a woodcutting permit for $20.
Kornec and Nappo resubmitted a plan in February this year, but its scope had significantly increased and included a 10-year period of operation that required an environmental assessment, under the National Environmental Policy Act.
They agreed to submit a revised plan that scaled back the scope of the operation, but then invited the Oath Keepers, and sent the threatening letter to the Forest Service, according to the complaint.
As far as the Forest Service knows, the explosives are still there at the White Hope mine.
U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter and Assistant U.S. Attorney Victoria Francis, in Billings, were not available for comment after hours Wednesday.
Attempts to contact Kornec, Nappo and the Oath Keepers were unsuccessful.
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