“I caught a claim jumper three weeks ago…Finally, I called the BLM Prineville office cop, but he was 350 miles away. I called the regional manager and he referred me to the BLM police, so I called the state BLM office with no luck.”
October 6, 2018
By Marjorie Haun
Emory Coons is a mining claim owner who was born in Burns, Harney County, Oregon and now lives in nearby Lake County and has lived in the region his entire life. For a period of years, Mr. Coons has been bedeviled by claim jumpers and lack of clear jurisdiction or action by various law enforcement agencies, including Bureau of Land Management law enforcement and the Lake County Sheriff’s Department.
Under the legal designation of “casual use,” which means there is negligible disturbance of land and surrounding resources where his claims are located, Mr. Coons mines an extremely pure form of “gem magnetite” in relatively small quantities. Although magnetite can be used in a variety of applications, he uses the magnetite, also known as “fire obsidian,” to create unique jewelry pieces and other decorative objects. The “host ore” in which the magnetite is found is primarily obsidian, a translucent volcanic glass with an extremely fine crystalline structure.
Thunderbird made with obsidian from Mr. Coons’ claims, Thunderbird created and Photo by Emory Coons
Claim jumpers, including one who is operating a commercial business selling the obsidian dug from Mr. Coons’ claim, have been wreaking havoc, digging large pits and inviting others to trespass on his private property, to which he has rights administered by the State of Oregon.
Whether through a misunderstanding of jurisdiction or simple neglect, none of the local law enforcement agencies have been willing to pursue the claim jumpers. Since Coons’ claims are on federal land, however, the onus in on BLM which is mandated to defend the rights of mining claim holders.
Mr. Coons’ problems with the BLM are two-fold. The Prineville office is requiring him to purchase an additional permit for the “host ore,” or rock which surrounds the magnetite, at $200 a ton, despite the fact that it is all extracted from the same location. Obsidian, although common in the area, is quite beautiful and sought by collectors, however, the BLM itself does not categorize obsidian as a gem material and because it is the “host ore” of the magnetite, it should not require an additional claim permit or fee.
Mr. Coons, an Umatilla Lithics instructor, with massive obsidian spear points Photo by Emory Coons
According to a 1999 decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the BLM is required not only to protect Mr. Coons’ claims properties, but cannot prevent him from taking possession of substance taken from the claims, including the host ore and any valuable minerals. The decision reaffirms Mr. Coons’ rights to everything that comes out of his claims, stating:
“Despite much contemporary hostility to the Mining Law of 1872 and high level political pressure by influential individuals and organizations for its repeal, all repeal efforts have failed, and it remains the law. The miners’ custom, that the finder of valuable minerals on government land is entitled to exclusive possession of the land for purposes of mining and to all the minerals he extracts, has been a powerful engine driving exploration and extraction of valuable minerals, and has been the law of the United States since 1866. … The phrase “mining claim” therefore probably connotes to most laymen an unsupported assertion or demand from which no legal rights can be inferred. But that is emphatically not so. In law, the word “claim” in connection with the phrase “mining claim” represents a federally recognized right in real property. The Supreme Court has established that a mining “claim” is not a claim in the ordinary sense of the word-a mere assertion of a right-but rather is a property interest, which is itself real property in every sense, and not merely an assertion of a right to property.” (US v. Shumway, No. 96-16480, 9th Circuit, 1999)
Exasperated, Mr. Coons has reached out to his Congressman, Greg Walden, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and President Trump, summing up in several letters the ongoing assaults on his private property. In his letters he cites contradictory actions by the Prineville (Lake County) BLM office, which is unduly hard on him as the claim owner, but appears to be turning a blind eye to the degradation caused by claim jumpers. Mr. Coons explains:
The BLM office of Prineville, Oregon does not comply with its own rules and is putting house policy over Federal mining law when it comes to my small mining operation. To say the least, they aid the black market on my mineral and do nothing to prosecute claim jumpers or trespassers, or even those who illegally dig massive holes. Yet, I have been told that I cannot dig anything over a 4’x4’x2′ hole on my own claims because it exceeds “casual use” limits. BLM, Prineville sent me a “Cease and Desist” order related to my relatively small dig, while they allowed others to pillage my claims. Furthermore, I’m being blamed for destruction caused by their actions.
As if that’s not enough, now the BLM is demanding that I buy a permit for the ore host rock off my own mineral and give them prior notice to dig a small (4′ x 4′ x 2′ ) hole on my load claims.
I believe this is an abuse of power by BLM and also a violation of the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914; Claim Jumping, the Clayton Act of Unfair Business Practices. I am a USA citizen and feel these actions have been a violation of my rights to pursue happiness, secure monetary gain from my private property, and better my life.
Although as a “casual use” miner, Mr. Coons is constrained from using large diggers and other machines on his claims, in one letter he describes an incident in which the Prineville BLM entered his claims using heavy equipment to destroy trees and move boulders. He details:
I applied for and have been issued claims on two gem quality magnetite mines at Glass Buttes in Lake County, Oregon. I am not a big corporation, I am more like a mom and pop operation, yet we are being treated like ”EXON CORP,” Grasberine, or Chuquicamata mines (large open pit mines). The BLM came onto my claim with a backhoe and destroyed trees (one was old growth) and moved rocks on with no notice, permit or explanation.
If I was to move machinery in without a notice or doing an Environmental Impact Study, Bond or without a certified heavy equipment operator, I would probably be in jail. Federal mining claim states that one acre per year disturbance is allowed without using machinery or dynamite and casual use is hand tools.
Most worryingly for Mr. Coons is the non-response from law enforcement related to the theft of tons material from his claims. Although claim jumping is a federal offense, and those stealing and marketing stolen material may receive heavy fines and jail time, neither BLM law enforcement, nor the Lake County Sheriff, nor the Oregon State Police have bothered to help him, despite Mr. Coons’ documentation, physical evidence including photographs, and identification of the thieves. He also makes the case for the rights and responsibilities of other casual users. His letter continues:
I have been trying to work with the Prineville office on several cases of theft from my claims which are located on BLM property (with over 150 tons of material removed by machinery prior to my claims) to no avail. No action has been taken to deal with the destruction of US property prior to my claims or since my claims have been approved. Many holes are continuing to be dug on my claim area by other rock hounds using unsafe practices.
According to the BLM brochure on Rockhounding, if material is removed without BLM authorization “You are subject to a $100,000 fine and up to 1 year in jail.” The local office is not following through on illegal activity in the Glass Butte area yet I am being threatened over casual use on my own claims because I dig with a rock hammer, shovel and a bar. I leave little damage, back filling holes as I go, though damage cause previous to my claim are extensive….
I have provided the Prineville BLM office with evidence of several cases of these criminal theft, as well as evidence that material taken from my claims is being sold online by thieves profiting from my claims. But nothing is done. I am the one working diligently to comply with the rules and supply the evidence, yet I am the one being tagged as the bad guy. I only sell gem quality slabs or finished gems with guaranteed magnetite. I do not sell raw obsidian from my mines only processed pieces of magnetite in stones…
I implore you to investigate this matter…We miners are a caring bunch of people, trying to make our way as teachers,mentors and dreamers. We hope that our dream will live on long after the current batch of your employees twist the laws to make the good guys into bad guys with minimal disturbance to our environment as possible.
Just yesterday, Free Range Report followed up with Emory Coons to see if he had made headway getting law enforcement to assist him. He summarized his attempts, saying:
I caught a claim jumper three weeks ago. I then called the Harney County Sheriff, but he said it was out of his jurisdiction. I then called the Crook County Sheriff who said it was out of his jurisdiction. I called the Lake County Sheriff who said he was busy and could not make the call. I called the Oregon State Police and they said if no one was shot, raped or in danger, that they couldn’t get involved. Finally, I called the BLM Prineville office cop, but he was 350 miles away. I called the regional manager and he referred me to the BLM police, so I called the state BLM office with no luck.
Eventually the Lake County Sheriff’s department said they started a investigation. I told the deputy that I have two witness who saw a claim jumper bringing in other people, stealing my minerals off my claims. The Sheriff told the deputy to tell me to call the BLM police because it was civil matter. So I did, but the the BLM told me to call the sheriff because it was criminal matter.
That got me nowhere, so I called and talked to the FBI for 1:02 minutes, but have not heard back since last Tuesday. Today, I called the Oregon DOJ , but with no help from them, I called the Lakeview County Commissioners who then referred me to the District Attorney in Lakeview, who sent me right back to the sheriff’s office…and I’m still waiting to hear from anyone.
Painfully frustrating, dilemmas like that of Mr. Coons are not uncommon where the federal government has jurisdiction over lands and resources. Not only is there confusion about who enforces the law when it comes to federal mining claims, but there is widespread ignorance, even among BLM law enforcement agents themselves, about what the law states and who it is supposed to protect. Unfortunately, Mr. Coons, like others who have suffered under the iron-fisted incompetence of federal land management agencies, may have to resort to legal action against the very government that is supposed to protect his rights and property. Mr. Coons is not optimistic that he will find help through local governments or the feds. And his remarks bring into question whether or not BLM should have any jurisdiction over those lands and resources at all. He says:
I have lived in Burns, Oregon my whole life. I see Glass Buttes as my second home and enjoy meeting young kids who are future rockhounds. The last thing I want to see is that piece of Heaven taken away or destroyed by greedy bureaucrats who say, according to the Prineville Geologist, “They don’t have the manpower or funds to even patrol the area.”
Mr. Coons’ “fire obsidian” Photo by Emory Coons