WHEN SOMEONE DIGS YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD

MINERS--SPURRED BY NEW TECHNOLOGY AND INPENDING REGULATORY REFORM--SCURRY TO LOCK UP MINERAL RIGHTS. RESIDENTS OF WALKER, ARIZONA, FEAR THEY'RE ABOUT TO GET THE SHAFT.

But even a quick tour of Walker reveals that neither the state Mine Department nor the U.S. Forest Service has had much success forcing mining companies to repair the land they have scarred.

The townsite is littered with the remnants of hundreds of old mines. The government can't be blamed for many of them--shafts and pits dating back 100 years; unfenced dark holes, many partially filled with brackish water.

Others, however, are much newer, the debris from more recent mine projects. Phillip Murray, a 30-year Walker resident, remembers dozens of aborted mine revitalization schemes that ended with the miners bagging their haul and disappearing--leaving unprotected mine shafts behind in their wake.

"Over the past few years, a lot of people have tried to get gold out of Walker," Murray says. "They mess up the landscape, leave holes . . . and then take off. Nobody ever makes anybody clean up the mess.

"Why should we believe that this new mine project will be any different?" Murray wonders.

Marra/Majestic didn't help allay this concern by explorations it conducted near the King Pin last summer. During the digging, the miners exploded dynamite that nearby residents say could be heard echoing for miles and left piles of wood and rock debris strewn around the site. The mine tunnel itself was only loosely covered with odd pieces of lumber.

Nor did the company promote civic good will when it demonstrated what some residents claim is a proclivity for distortions, outright lies and ruthless business hardball.

"This kind of thing is happening all over the country," says Darrell Knuffkey, a spokesman for the Washington-based Wilderness Society, an environmental group that, next to Bruce Babbitt, has become the foremost critic of the 1872 Mining Law.

"Fairly small mining operations, 'boutique' mines, if you will, are opening like crazy in western states," he says.

Part of the reason is that new technologies--variations of radar and ultrasound, to help find mineral deposits, along with new, more efficient ore-refining techniques--have become less expensive and are no longer restricted to corporate mining giants.

This techno-explosion, environment watchers like Knuffkey say, is helping to make mining the new "faddish" industry of the 1990s, open to small partnerships. Forest Service officials say they have received 100 requests to patent mining claims in the Prescott National Forest this year alone. Many are in desolate, uninhabited areas, but several are near old mining towns like Walker--with quaint names like Potato Patch and Big Bug--that have long since become small residential enclaves.

But Knuffkey says that the main reason for the growth in patent requests is that miners and investors know that this giveaway on federal lands won't last. Now is the time to patent land, so that when Congress changes the law, the patent rights will be "grandfathered" in.

Both houses of Congress have passed measures that would alter the law to force miners to pay royalties on mined ores--which would theoretically make it less profitable, and thus less attractive, for mining companies to patent public land.

But according to Stephanie Hanna, a spokeswoman for Babbitt, neither bill directly addresses the problem of towns like Walker.

"We need to recognize that not only should taxpayers get a cut of the profits on public lands," she says, "but that there are also certain areas that are just not suitable for mining under any circumstances.

"Whether because of their natural beauty and environmental importance or because they are inhabited, some places just should not be disturbed."
Hanna says Babbitt wants a "suitability" test, along with the royalties requirement, in any mining reform bill. She places the odds on success at "50-50."

Fair odds. But until such a bill becomes law, the situation will remain as Knuffkey describes it.

"It doesn't matter if there are people in the way or not," he says. "Miners can come in anywhere, even if it is right next to a house or town hall, and dig it up. That's the problem with the law. According to it, there is no better or more appropriate use for public land than to mine it.

"And these little towns, where public land meets private, are paying the price."

"This is going to be grrreat for Walker," enthuses Jim Parks, a geologist and consultant hired by Marra/Majestic to help run excavations into the King Pin.

An articulate man who has advised some of the world's biggest mining companies on projects all over the West, Parks' eyes glitter with intelligence and vigor. For him, mining is a holy mission, a love and an avocation rolled into one, and he can't understand why anyone wouldn't want an active gold mine in his backyard.

So, too, Ollie Ross radiates positive energy. One of two local partners in Marra/Majestic (along with Prescott Valley resident McCarra), who serve as on-site supervisors for the company's Ohio investors, Ross is the stereotype of the old, prickly miner. With snow-white hair and beard framing his deeply lined, leathery face, Ross is a character frozen in time.

The pair stand in a small clearing near the King Pin, surrounded by tall pines, as Parks explains that mining is fundamentally good: an all-American activity that serves the best interests of the people and the economy.

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