Nearly 16 years after Central Oregon residents succeeded in restricting developments in and around scenic Newberry Crater, described by environmentalists as one of the region's natural jewels, a Portland man is seeking to tap into another of Newberry's treasures - hundreds of millions of dollars worth of pumice and geothermal energy he claims are located on his land there.
James Miller, an 82-year-old mechanical engineer, filed a claim under Measure 37 asking for permission to build a large-scale mine, a geothermal power plant and 100 homes on 157 acres he owns in the heart of the Newberry National Volcanic Monument.
The claim is nearly $50 million more than all other claims filed in Deschutes County combined, according to county records. The $200 million price tag would make it one of the largest requests for compensation in Oregon, according to state records.
No one lives on the property now, which borders the western edge of East Lake, Miller said. His land is mostly covered by a pine forest, with a small cabin and a seldom-used pumice quarry as the only developments, Miller said. The lake is one of two sparsely populated mountain lakes within the Newberry Crater.
Congress created the 55,000-acre Newberry Monument in 1990 to limit development on the site.
On Wednesday, local environmentalists expressed outrage at Miller's plans.
”If something like that were to proceed, they might as well remove the designation as a national monument and be done with that,” said Bill Marlett, head of the Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert Association and a leading advocate for protecting the crater as a monument. ”It would be a disaster.”
Deschutes County has five months remaining to rule on Miller's claim, which he filed June 1. A date hasn't been set for a county hearings officer to consider the claim.
Only after the pumice mine is tapped out and the geothermal plant is under way - either of which could take decades - would Miller build the 100 homes requested in his claim, he said. They would likely be built on the shores of East Lake, with individual septic systems and wells.
Miller said he has planned to mine his land, which was once a mining claim, since he bought it in 1969. That was before a series of state and local regulations limited his operations there to just a few months a year, he said.
”It was an attempt to block us at every turn,” Miller said.
At full operation, the mine could produce up to $180 million worth of pumice, Miller's claim says, based on Deschutes County estimates of the pumice stock. Lump pumice sells for an average price of $216 per metric ton, according to 2006 U.S. Geological Survey publications.
The rock is used in a variety of specialized cleaning products and is also a key component in creating acid-washed jeans, according to the New Mexico Bureau of Geology & Mineral Resources' Web site.
The U.S. Forest Service, which manages the Newberry Monument, has long known that Miller's property could become an issue but wasn't able to negotiate a land swap, said Bob Deane, the recreational engineering lands and mineral staff officer for the Deschutes National Forest.
”In the late '80s (and) early '90s, we identified that parcel as a priority for acquisition through either an exchange or a purchase,” Deane said. ”He put a worth on it that was way more than what we felt was the fair market value.”
Deane said he doesn't remember Miller's asking price at the time.
Miller's most recent estimate of the land's value also seems high, said Tim Lillebo, the Eastern Oregon representative for the Oregon Natural Resources Council.
”Whoever these people are, they have an outrageous proposal, which appears to be simply a grab for as much money as they can get,” Lillebo said.
But Miller said the Forest Service didn't offer him a fair deal.
”I said we've got what we think is the best location in the world, why would we exchange that for moose pasture?” he said.
While the Forest Service is tracking Miller's claim, the agency isn't working to acquire the land, said spokeswoman Sue Olson.
”The reality is we have no plans at this time,” Olson said. ”We are certainly interested in the outcome of the claim, but it's inappropriate for us to comment on the claim.”
Miller said his first priority is building a geothermal power plant within the crater.
”There's a tremendous need to show that Oregon can generate some geothermal energy,” said Miller, referring to power created by harnessing underground heat. ”Newberry's probably the best place to do that.”
Miller claims the site holds at least $11 million worth of geothermal power - up to 202 megawatts of energy, according to an analysis of the Newberry Crater by the Department of Geology and Mineral Industries. That would provide enough energy for about 200,000 people, according to the Geothermal Energy Association.
Miller's plant would be the second attempt to harness geothermal power near Newberry Crater. Vulcan Power Co. of Bend is about two years away from creating the first geothermal power plant on the crater's western flank, said Steve Munson, Vulcan CEO. The company has signed deals to generate 180 megawatts of power at the site, he said.
Miller said he intends to do as much as possible to minimize the impact from his developments, but in the end his land's biggest value comes from its resources, not scenic qualities.
”There are a lot of lakes all across the country that have got cabins on them and they're pretty,” Miller said.