On June 16, 2014, I got a call from Bre Elsey, an aid to Republican Representative Matt Manweller.
Rep. Manweller serves the 13th District in the Washington State House of Representatives, with a local office in Ellensburg, about 100 miles southeast of Seattle. He represents Lincoln and Kittitas counties, and parts of Grant and Yakima Counties including Roslyn, Cle Elum, Ellensburg, Mattawa, Moses Lake, Quincy, Ephrata, Warden and Odessa.
One of his constituents is Tony Nicholas, who operates a small mine, called the “Anthony J&T” in Liberty, Washington. He is also a long-time subscriber to ICMJ’s Prospecting and Mining Journal.
Elsey stated that Nicholas requested assistance in dealing with the US Forest Service.
Around four years ago, a small debris slide covered the opening to Nicholas’ mine. Acting in good faith, he attempted to get approval from the Forest Service so he could use a backhoe to remove the debris. He estimated it would only take a minimal amount of scoops, and the debris could be deposited in a hole conveniently located adjacent to the mine. His request was denied, then his grizzly and backhoe disappeared.
Nicholas had a small, removable trailer on-site during the mining season to take needed rest breaks, and he has a caretaker to assist him. Other campers frequent the area with similar trailers. All of his Notices of Intent and Plans of Operation have been denied for various reasons. A $10,000 bond was requested by the Forest Service initially, but that was recently increased to $24,000. The Forest Service recommended Nicholas dig out the obstruction using hand tools.
Nicholas is a disabled Vietnam veteran in his mid-seventies, who is paralyzed on his right side, so he has little use of his right hand and arm, and he communicates through use of an electronic voice synthesizer.
Elsey said she and Representative Manweller thought there might be something more to this story. How could the Forest Service deny such a simple request if only a few scoops from a backhoe were required?
After getting the background story from Nicholas, Elsey and Rep. Manweller drove out to the mining site. It was just as Nicholas had described—a remote area with little possibility of damaging other natural resources in the process of moving the debris.
Rep. Manweller arranged a conference call with the Forest Service on June 9, 2014. Included were the Cle Elum Interim District Manager Richy Harrod, Forest Service Minerals Administrator JoAnne Homuth and aids to US Representative Dave Reichert (R-Washington, 8th District).
Elsey stated that Nicholas even offered to reclaim the small, disturbed area (the filled hole) after moving the dirt and debris by planting native grass, but the Forest Service representatives came up with numerous excuses as to why they could not allow it. They stated that the mine is in a riparian area, a creek that was as least 500 feet away “may or may not” be impacted, steelhead could be affected in the creek, and the work “may or may not” impact the spotted owl.
The Forest Service wants Nicholas—despite his disability—to dig out the mine opening by hand!
Elsey added that the Forest Service has admitted they “impounded” Nicholas’ equipment; however, they have not responded to requests regarding the status of that equipment.
“They still haven’t answered our questions,” said Elsey. “Where is the equipment? How come he wasn’t told how to get it back? Why was it impounded and what was the violation? Has it been sold?”
Time to Take Action
Rep. Manweller decided to take action against this overbearing federal agency.
On Sunday, June 22—which is after our press deadline—Rep. Manweller, Elsey and an army of volunteers planned to meet at Nicholas’ mine with shovels to literally lend a hand. Together, they will clear the debris with shovels and other hand tools.
Even though many of our subscribers might have wanted to show up to help, Rep. Manweller did not want us to publicize this event in advance.
“Frankly, we would have liked to open this dig to the public, but after the conversations we had with the Forest Service, we decided that we couldn’t trust what their reaction might be,” said Elsey.
“This is a story that has become all too common in America,” said Representative Manweller. “A government agency seems determined to violate the rights of the very citizens they are supposed to protect. In this case, a disabled, elderly veteran wants nothing more than to work his own property. Although Mr. Nicholas has tried to follow every rule, the Forest Service has stolen his property, demanded exorbitant amounts of money, and each time he jumps through one hoop, they create a new one. It has taken him four years to get permission to move a pile of rocks. And he is still no closer than he was four years ago. This is a new type of administrative tyranny that is simply unacceptable to many Americans.
“At the end of the day, this is bigger than one gold mine in Liberty. We’re done watching as an unelected and unchecked bureaucracy, with rule-making authority, enforcement powers, and seemingly bottomless budgets, abuses citizens at will. While this dig is mostly symbolic, it is important that it represents the end to lying down while agencies find excuse after excuse to chip away at our rights. These folks are coming to this dig because they’re sick of just saying how much they hate watching their neighbors endure rampant agency abuse—they’re ready to walk the walk.”
We want to acknowledge and applaud the efforts of Representative Manweller for his assistance with this case.
We will have a follow-up report on this case, including photos of the volunteer effort, next month in the August issue and on our website at www.icmj.com