All that Glitters

Plans for gold prospecting threaten mountain wilderness


There might be gold in the mountains of the Upstate. At least one prospector wants to find out for sure.

Problem is, the land in question is federal property, requiring government bureaucrats to give the green light on any plans for prospecting.

The green light came on recently, in response to an application to prospect near Crooked Creek, a sign that worries environmentalists.

South Carolina Forest Watch, the Upstate watchdog group that has been following the process, sees the writing on the wall if gold prospecting pans out in their neck of the woods.

S.C. Forest Watch is one of those rare organizations that does what its name implies. It watches the forest. More specifically, it watches the forest for any incursions or invasions that would endanger the forest's ecology.

Forest Watch, in addition to watching the forest, knows that it must watch the U.S. Forest Service. The group knows that enemies of the forest sometimes take the form of insects or disease microorganisms. Other times they walk on two legs, form corporations and know how to fill out applications.

The U.S. Forest Service is entrusted with managing Sumter National Forest in the Carolinas and in Georgia. While one of its functions is to guard the integrity of the forest from disease, insect infestation, forest fires and the like, it also merchandises the resources of these public lands.

Most of the conflicts between the U.S. Forest Service and S.C. Forest Watch have been over timber harvesting. The U.S. Forest Service's policies of aggressive clear-cutting, old-growth logging and timbering in wilderness areas have often been challenged in court.

During the Reagan and Bush administrations, the U.S. Forest Service often functioned as an extension of the timber industry, violating their own regulations and rewarding rangers who met their "timber quotas."

While the Clinton Administration has made an effort to restore some balance to the Forest Service's land management practices, critics contend that the changes are mostly semantic and that little has actually changed on the ground (See POINT, December 1993, "The Changing Face of South Carolina's National Forests").

The latest threat to the state's national forests is the possibility that there might be gold in them thar hills.

The U.S. Forest Service has approved an application from a corporation that wants to prospect for gold in the area by Crooked Creek in Western Oconee County.

During the public comment period of the permit process, S.C. Forest Watch argued that while prospecting alone might not cause irreparable harm to the biosystem, mining the logical next step most definitely would. Forest Watch argued that to consider prospecting without considering the implications of mining was shortsighted and dangerous.

Elizabeth Merz, district manager for the U.S. Forest Ser-vice, said, "No-thing in the regulations tells me I have the latitude to refuse to consider a prospecting application. The application is for prospecting only. If [an applicant] receives his permit and prospects and makes valuable mineral finds, he must go back through the process," in order to mine.

Merz admits that the potential of "significant royalties to the government would be a consideration. The U.S. Forest Service would probably at that time require a full en-vironmental impact statement," which would again open the process to public comment.

Merz said that her office has approved the prospecting permit and turn-ed it over to the Bureau of Land Management for final approval.

BLM geologist Richard Wallace said, "My finding was that prospecting was necessary to determine if there are valuable deposits of gold."

With both the U.S. Forest Service and the BLM approving prospecting, it appears that only court action will prevent any digging in the area.

Brad Wyche, a Green-ville lawyer and son of environmentalist Tom Wyche, has followed the application process and doesn't rule out a suit to stop prospecting plans.

While the notion of prospecting for gold conjures up images of old codgers sifting pans of sand dipped from the mountain streams, the permit will allow Clifford Leonard (now doing business as Accipiter Exploration) to dig six trenches 30 feet long, two feet wide and four feet deep.

"If they find gold," Wyche said, "the probable method of mining will be the cyanide leaching method." This is the method used when the gold content is so low in the ore that huge amounts of earth are scooped out and liquid cyanide is used to leach out the gold. Often, 30 tons of ore are mined to yield one ounce of gold. The resulting poisonous slop is then pumped into a settling pond.

The gold mine in Ridgeway has created a 381-acre "tailings pond" to contain the slurry. The discarded ore has created two mountains that tower above the area (See POINT September 1991 "Striking Gold and Fear in South Carolina").

Ridgeway Mining Corporation is permitted to use up to 10 tons of pure cyanide a day. Although a portion of cyanide the size of a grain of rice can kill three people, the mine is not required to report spills involving less than 10 pounds of cyanide.

While Accipiter Exploration may not strike gold, the thought of an open pit mine on the banks of the Crooked Creek, one of the most biologically diverse areas of the state, strikes fear and anger in those who want to see the national forests preserved.

For information concerning this and other issues affecting the state's mountain wilderness, contact S.C. Forest Watch, P.O. Box 657, Westminster, SC 29693.

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© Copyright by POINT, 1995

Last modified 8/8/95