BLM employees examine mining claims to determine if they are valid.
A field examination of mining claims is needed to help determine the extent of valuable minerals, but gets complicated in wilderness areas. (BLM)

Looking for Gold in the Wilderness

By Alan Rabinoff

Muggins Mountain Wilderness is a 7,711-acre, congressionally designated area located about 25 miles east of Yuma, Arizona.  Its rugged peaks, chocolate-brown outcrops, and many washes are testaments to the erosional power of water, either through the millennia or as recently as the last “gully washer.”  In 1990, the year the wilderness was designated, there was also a legacy of mining interest in the area—placer mining claims located under the 1872 mining law.  The interest was in finding gold.

Mining claimants had filed a plan of operations with the BLM that proposed a new gold mine in the wilderness area.  By regulation, prior to its decision on whether to approve the proposal, the BLM had to perform a field examination of the mining claims to determine if they were “valid” under the mining law.  As BLM geologists trained in such things, Harry DeLong (of the Yuma District) and I (then with the Arizona State Office), assisted by Byard Kershaw (also of the Arizona State Office), were assigned the challenge of assessing the validity of the gold placer mining claims in Muggins Wash.  This experience later enabled me to become a BLM-certified mineral examiner (CME), a position evolved from earlier years when the agency called such people “valuation engineers.”  Only mining claims that existed before the designation of this wilderness area could be mined, since those claims would be considered valid, existing rights.

It is daunting enough to objectively determine whether there “exists in sufficient quality and quantity valuable minerals to lead a prudent person to have the reasonable expectation of developing a valuable mine.”  Such is the standard for determining a “valid” mining claim that has been set in case law for many, many years.  As was the case here, the CME would typically take samples from each mining claim to help determine the extent of valuable minerals present.  Although our field examination was required by regulation, our most interesting challenge was taking adequate samples from each mining claim and transporting them out of the wilderness in a way that would not impair wilderness values.  There would be no driving in the wilderness, and thousands of pounds of potentially gold-bearing sand and gravel had to be transported out of the area!

After days of hiking, mapping, and thinking, our small team tried at first to carry the gravel-laden, canvas sample bags on our backs.  After taking several steps in the direction of our truck, which was parked in the wash just outside the wilderness boundary, we quickly knew that this was not going to work.  With permission from the BLM, we tried and successfully used a deer carrier.  Though originally designed to cart big game during hunting season, it proved to be the best way to carry our samples out of the wilderness, leaving only the very temporary trace of a single track in the sand.  The tracks were obliterated by our footsteps before ever being washed away in the next rain or erased by the winds.

Back at the BLM’s Yuma office, I remembered what the area manager, Mike Taylor, told us when we first gathered in the office to start the project.  “Anything you need, just ask and I’ll get you help.”  Making a mental note of Taylor’s physique and status as a former football player, we soon took him up on his offer.  Within weeks, Taylor himself was out there helping by hauling that deer carrier, laden with carefully gathered and bagged sand and gravel, down Muggins Wash.  Talk about management support!

Eventually, with all samples taken and processed, we formed an objective opinion that the placer mining claims in Muggins Mountain Wilderness did not individually or collectively support a discovery of a valuable mineral deposit.  There was just not enough gold to support a mining operation.

The BLM’s decision was appealed, and the Department of the Interior (DOI) Office of Hearings and Appeals held an administrative hearing attended by the mining claim owners, with representation by their attorney.  The BLM was represented by Rich Greenfield of the DOI Office of the Solicitor, Phoenix Field Office.  As part of my CME duties, I had my first-ever opportunity to testify before an administrative judge as an expert witness for the United States.  After presenting the BLM’s arguments that the judge should declare the mining claims null and void (invalid), I was cross-examined by the mining claimant’s attorney.  That was quite an experience, since every aspect of our team’s work was questioned.

After the 2-day hearing, the judge agreed with BLM’s finding.  Since the judge’s decision was not appealed to the Interior Board of Land Appeals, Muggins Mountain Wilderness no longer has any mining claims within its boundaries.  By law, no mining operations can occur there.

I’ve never been back to that wilderness area, but I think now and again of the process of determining the validity of mining claims, part of BLM’s responsibilities in managing the public lands.


Alan Rabinoff retired from the BLM as the deputy state director for minerals and lands at the Wyoming State Office.