ELLENSBURG — More than 50 people showed up at a mine site north of Liberty on June 22 to help move rock by hand, an effort organized by Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg.
The mine site belongs to disabled Vietnam veteran Tony Nicholas, 75, who lives in Kittitas. Nicholas has been the operator of Anthony J&T Mining for the past 24 years.
Four years ago, a small debris slide covered the entrance area to Nicholas’ mine, and due to government regulations, he hasn’t been able to bring tools to the area to clear the debris.
The people moved two tons of rock by hand on Sunday, opening the mine entrance again.
“It was probably the single best day in my term so far, just the energy and the compassion and the feeling like we accomplished something,” Manweller said.
Nicholas contacted Manweller’s office in the end of May for help. Manweller’s office frequently works with constituents having trouble with various government agencies.
Back when the slide happened, neighboring mine owners immediately went to work and used dynamite and backhoes to fix their mines, without asking the U.S. Forest Service for permission.
Nicholas asked the Forest Service in writing for permission to temporarily bring a small backhoe and trailer to his claim site to remove the rock, but said the Forest Service denied his request.
The Forest Service doesn’t typically allow mechanized tools like chainsaws or backhoes on its lands without approval
“The discerning piece is whether it’s mechanized or not,” new Cle Elum District Ranger Mary Maj said Tuesday. “To go out with a shovel and move rocks around is considered casual use. Until we had a plan of operation, we would not have approved a use of mechanized equipment.”
Maj said she believed a plan of operation had not been submitted to the service by Nicholas.
Nicholas said the Forest Service asked him for documents proving that he would not disturb the spotted owl that may live in the area or the steelhead fish that may live in a creek nearby.
He was asked to submit a plan on how he will reintroduce native plants to areas he considers active dig sites, and other paperwork, in addition to a $10,000 cash bond, which later jumped to $24,000.
The Forest Service’s standard procedure is to ask for as much information as possible before allowing mechanized equipment onto lands to protect public safety and natural resources.
“Mr. Nicholas is the claimant on this mineral claim on public lands, and it’s my understanding that he came forth to us with a notice of intent to operate,” Maj said. “We go back and had asked for a plan of operation. We’d request he spell out a little more detail with what he’s going to be doing, what equipment he’s using.”
While Nicholas was working on terms with the Forest Service, the agency also went onto his claim land and impounded his tools and a backhoe, equipment valued at $68,000.
Maj said that anytime a claim changes hands or transfers, the Forest Service revisits the site, identifies what plans say, and decides what tools are allowed and what must be removed.
“In a case where there’s no response or no removal by the claimant, I understand we had a salvage operator remove it,” Maj said.
Once Manweller’s office heard about Nicholas’ problem, legislative assistant Breanne Elsey started making calls and going through documents with Manweller and Nicholas.
“We started by reading a lot of documents,” Manweller said. “We had four years of catch up to play.”
Then staff started reaching out to the Forest Service, but didn’t receive a response. When that didn’t get them anywhere, they reached up the chain in the Forest Service, and eventually took it to Washington, D.C.
The Forest Service eventually told Manweller’s office that the rocks could be moved, but must be done so without the use of a backhoe, which would create an excessive disturbance.
Manweller’s office organized a cleanup effort, and on Sunday the 50 volunteers showed up at the Liberty Cafe in Cle Elum, and then drove up to Nicholas’ land where they began moving rocks.
The work was expected to be a four- to five-hour job, but two tons of rock was moved in two hours by volunteers.
Some of the people involved in the efforts included other miners, veterans and retired Forest Service employees.
“I was the happiest person in that moment,” Nicholas said when he saw how many people were in the Liberty Cafe parking lot. “I’m standing up. They stood up on Sunday.”
The work the team did on Sunday was legal, Maj said, adding “We’ll continue to identify the next plan of operation. … We’re eager to work with the claimant.”
Manweller’s office is still working to get an answer as to what happened to Nicholas’ backhoe and other tools.
“We have documentation from the Forest Service conceding they took his stuff,” Manweller said. “When we tried to talk to them in person, they said they don’t know where things slipped through the cracks. We’re considering to pursue that one at a federal level.”
Moving the rocks was symbolic, and the hope is that it will bring the Forest Service back to the table for discussions about making the mine functional again. Manweller said his office is limited to what it can do now.
“This was an act of civic activism,” he said. “There were just so many rules this guy couldn’t do what he wanted. We’re not going to break any rules. We’re not going to break any laws.”