Winston Ross / The Register-Guard, Eugene, Ore.
Dina Pavlis was out trolling in 2,700 acres that encompass the Heceta Dunes at the north end of Florence a few years back when she noticed something strange, tucked in among the shorepines and European beachgrass: A small white tube with a cap on top, driven into the sand.
Pavlis moved to Florence for these dunes, and over the years she had become something of an expert on their inhabitants. This odd stake did not belong here, she thought. So she pried off the top and peered inside.
There, Pavlis found her answer: A rolled-up piece of paper, with the words “NOTICE OF LOCATION — ASSOCIATION PLACER MINING CLAIM” at the top.
A mining claim? For the dunes?
Pavlis was curious. She called the U.S. Forest Service, which owns Heceta Dunes, and learned something that surprised her. Anyone can stake such a claim on certain public lands in the United States, thanks to a mining law that turns 140 years old this year — a law passed by Congress in order to encourage people to move out to the West.
“I was surprised at how easy it is for companies to get ahold of public lands,” Pavlis said. “I thought public land was land we owned.”
Most of those claims lie dormant, Pavlis learned when she researched the law and the claims with the Forest Service. She asked to be notified if anything happened regarding the claim and set her concern aside.
Then last year, a series of trucks started rumbling down her quiet street in the Heceta Beach neighborhood and out onto the sand. She’d received no notification about the claims, she said, so she again called the Forest Service to find out what was going on.
She got an answer that has revived her concern about those dormant claims. Someone was drilling test bores in three separate claims, about 70 acres each, then-Deputy District Ranger Viva Worthington told her, Pavlis said. And they “found what they were looking for.”
That someone, it turns out, is an Indiana man named Ron Wilson. His are among seven active claims in the Heceta Dunes.
What he found was silica, the mineral that lines this sand and can be extracted to make all sorts of high-tech products, from computer chips to the mixture of materials that are used in the hydraulic fracturing involved in the search for shale gas.
Wilson couldn’t be located for this story, but federal records show he filed a notice of intent last year with the Forest Service to do the test drilling. And it appears he purchased the claim from someone else in 2002, then recorded that claim with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which owns subsurface mineral rights on federal land.
Anyone can file or own such a claim, said Jan Robbins, a minerals specialist with the BLM’s Eugene District. Most, but not all, federal land can be mined, depending on when and how it was taken into ownership and what the rules of the various land management plans say about mining.
What worries Pavlis and her Heceta Beach neighbors is that there’s no deadline for the claimant to take action. Wilson filed his request to drill test wells, it was granted, and now he has an indefinite amount of time to submit a “plan of operations” to actually pull silica out of the ground.
“He sent the form on Nov. 14,” Worthington said. “We haven’t heard anything since.”
Wilson could wait five months to do that, or five years — or longer.
“The point is, we’re entirely in the dark as to what their maneuvers might be,” said Philip Johnson, executive director of the Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition, which has been working with the neighbors.
Worried they might get caught flat-footed, the neighbors held a meeting this spring and asked Worthington to attend and answer questions. They also set up a mailing list so that if Pavlis or someone else gets news that Wilson is moving forward, the neighbors can mobilize quickly.
Some who attended that meeting wondered if all this action was premature. If Wilson submitted a plan for mining tomorrow, that would set in motion a two-year review process, complete with public notice, comment periods and appeal options as required by the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.
But Harlen Springer, who has emerged as one of the neighborhood group’s leaders, said there’s good reason to be prepared for this now.
“The public notice could be a single line in the newspaper,” Springer said. “Then we’re playing catch-up. While they’re going through the process, we’re back trying to figure out, ‘What’s NEPA?’ ”
Another reason, Johnson added, is that the vigilance alone might discourage Wilson from pursuing the claim.
“The fact is, people getting organized and well-prepared will in itself be a deterrent,” Johnson aid. “It’s your basic hedgehog defense mechanism: Present as prickly a surface as you possibly can.”