A lost art

While large mining companies are enjoying a resurgence in the extraction of precious minerals from beneath the Nevada soil because of new technologies and rising prices, another group is disappearing from the mining scene.

They are the hard-rock miners, individuals or collections of mom-and-pop operations that once dotted the landscape. As recently as the late 1980s, these rugged individuals held the lion's share of more than 400,000 mining claims in the state. Today, that number has dwindled to approximately 120,000 active claims, half still owned by individuals. Nowhere is this slide more evident than on the membership rolls of the Nevada Miners and Prospectors Association.

"At one time, there used to be between 400 and 500 members," says Alan Coyner, administrator of the state's Division of Minerals. "Today, there are 40 paying members."

Coyner, who serves as treasurer of the organization, says the disappearance of prospectors and the reduction in the number of active claims can be laid at what he calls "the tremendous overhang of the federal and state bureaucracy" which, among other policies, mandates an annual maintenance fee on each claim.

"A lot of these miners might hold anywhere from 20 to 50 claims," he says, "and at today's fee of $125 per claim, for most it was no longer economically practical for them."

Frank Lewis, a Sparks resident who is credited with founding the miners and prospectors organization some 50 years ago, held thousands of such claims until recently.

"The association was formed to protect both the spirit and intent of the 1872 mining law," he says. "But the government has ruined it for all of us. Only the really big mining companies can afford to work the earth today."

Steve Craig is a past president of the association and a good friend of Lewis. He is now vice president of exploration for a Colorado-based mining company that is pursuing permits to mine gold near Hawthorne. But he has a very warm spot in his heart for the plight of the individual miner.

"The real push to close access rights to many of these claims began in the Clinton administration," Craig says. "There was a massive assault on the extraction industry including mining. It was scary as hell."

While efforts to attack the 1872 mining law itself did not succeed, environmental groups, he says, promulgated laws dealing with water, air and roads. But the mining claim maintenance fee, he says, was the dagger in the heart of the hard-rock miner.

Minerals chief Coyner said the association's membership still believes mining in the state should be a fundamental right. Many have been searching for gold since the Depression Era, he says.

"Most never made a dime, but they loved digging and hoping," he says. "A lot of them were probably only one foot from a million dollars at times, but never knew."

Lewis says Coyner is absolutely correct.

He first got hooked on mining during his junior year at the University of Southern California when a friend suggested they spend a few weeks in Ely. A few weeks turned into four years for Lewis.

"I met an old prospector and he showed me one of his claims where there was this gold seam that was only about one inch wide," he says.

"So I asked him, 'Why don't you chase it farther, do more tunneling?' So we did. We hand-mined it together and went in another six feet and the gold seam suddenly spread out 20 feet wide. We had a 1930s vintage dump truck and took the ore to the railroad where it then went to the McGill smelter. The ore was low grade and I recall we got only 90 cents an ounce then for silver and, of course, gold was fixed at $35 an ounce. That's when I started buying up mining claims and continued to do so after I got out of the Army in 1957."

Lewis is no longer active in the industry.

"I sold 600 patented claims and several thousand unpatented claims to Victory Gold in late December," he says. "I owned many of those claims for upwards of 50 years. Never got real rich, but I did make some money."

(A patented claim is one where the federal government the BLM or the Forest Service grants ownership rights to the claimant. That means the claimant owns the land as well as the minerals beneath it. An unpatented claim means the claimant is only leasing the land with the right to extract minerals, but no ownership occurs.)

What disturbs Lewis is that for many individuals, it really didn't matter if they struck a big vein or not.

"It was a way of life for a lot of them," he says. "Some of the miners I met out there in the late '40s and early '50s were veterans of World War I. Some had been gassed and wounded, and just wanted to get away. So they got their claims and built their shacks around dozens of tiny mining camps. And then the BLM and Forest Service forced them out. It's not right."

Lewis, who is 73, said he came close to losing his claims after he was drafted during the Korean War.

"I learned that the Forest Service was trying to condemn my surface rights, "he says. "They said there was no mineral value on my land. So I hired a lawyer in Ely and then wrote to Walter Baring who was then our congressman."

Baring, who was born in Goldfield, sent a mining expert to inspect Lewis' properties. He reported back that the Forest Service was wrong and Lewis says he was not bothered again.

While the miners and prospectors association Lewis founded continues to appear before state legislative committees whenever mining legislation is discussed, it is the large mining companies that today do yeoman's work in that political arena.

"Because the small miners have largely disappeared," says Craig, "it is left to the large corporate entities today to guide legislation favorable to the industry. They are the only ones left with the financial resources and clout."

As for Lewis, don't ask him today to describe how he feels about what he believes is federal encroachment on an individual's right to mine. It is unprintable.

"Do I miss not owning any more mining claims here? You bet I do," he says. "But time isn't on my side anymore."


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