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Thunder Mountain now public land

This undated photo provided by Trust for Public Land shows a view of central Idaho’s Thunder Mountain from the south. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
This undated photo provided by Trust for Public Land shows a view of central Idaho’s Thunder Mountain from the south. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

Move saves mining area from development

BOISE – Hundreds of mining claims deep in Idaho’s Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness are now in public hands, a move officials say will protect drainages where salmon return annually while keeping a winding dirt road open for the curious to explore ramshackle cabins and other mining artifacts brought in by prospectors a century ago.

Thunder Mountain, as the area is known, is the latest example of private property owners, conservation groups and the U.S. Forest Service in Idaho, Colorado and Montana inking million-dollar compacts to preserve Rocky Mountain backcountry.

Sometimes, the transactions halt further mining, as with Thunder Mountain; elsewhere, they keep developers from turning old claims into mountaintop trophy homes.

“There are all these mining communities that came and went,” said Alan Front, senior vice president for the Trust For Public Lands, which helped negotiate the Thunder Mountain deal. “Now, they’re only digging deep enough to put in foundations for McMansions.”

The 36-year-old San Francisco-based group buys land with money from supporters and holds it until agencies such as the Forest Service can secure funding elsewhere, including offshore oil and natural gas royalties from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. So far, the group has helped on 3,500 projects, protecting 2.5 million acres in 47 states.

In March, it engineered an $8 million deal to buy nearly 1,500 acres of private mining claims outside Yellowstone National Park’s northeast gate some feared would become backcountry cabins. It plans to eventually transfer them to the Forest Service, effectively ending a decades-old fight over the New World Mining District near Cooke City, Mont.

And Sept. 30, the Trust for Public Land shifted 115 acres to local governments in Telluride, Colo., the final $1.4 million piece of a $14 million deal begun in 2004 where some 7,000 acres of mining claims have been transferred to public agencies. Telluride officials feared 12,000-square-foot homes could be built on private mining claims that separated the town from a nature preserve and worried public access to 431-foot Bridal Veil Falls could be blocked.

“Organizations such as TPL have the ability to move much faster to tie up property than governments,” said Lance McDonald, Telluride’s projects manager. “Together, we crafted an acquisition that lowered the purchase price.”

On Idaho’s Thunder Mountain, the group paid $5.5 million in 2005 for mining claims resembling a cherry on stem road piercing deep into the Frank Church. On Sept. 11, the Forest Service made the last of four installments to Trust for Public Land on nearly eight square miles of backcountry that previously belonged to one of Idaho’s oldest mining families.

Back in 1910, Daniel C. McRae staked his first claims in the Thunder Mountain area, where visitors who today make the 160-mile, six-hour drive from Boise can still see tram towers that brought ore from the mines along a 1.5 mile cableway to mills in the valley below. There’s also the underwater ghost town of Roosevelt, submerged after a 1909 landslide.

Jim Collord, McRae’s grandson and president of Thunder Mountain Gold, preserves fading family photos of the area on his computer at offices in Boise. The retired superintendent from large Nevada gold mines including Jerritt Canyon pointed out during an interview in early October that Coeur d’Alene Mines extracted more than 100,000 ounces of gold between 1986 and 1990 from Thunder Mountain, worth some $90 million at today’s prices.

Though there are still millions of dollars worth left in the ground, Collord said getting permits for a new mine would take a decade – not including inevitable legal battles with environmental groups fearful of fuel-laden trucks crossing Monumental Summit to the west. Thunder Mountain is perched above the headwaters of Middle Fork of the Salmon River, where endangered chinook salmon spawn.

“It could take forever to permit anything in there,” Collord said in a recent interview.

As a result, discussions among Collord, the Payette National Forest and the Trust for Public Land began in the 1990s over eventually shifting the property to public control. An appraisal of claims controlled by the family valued the deal at $13 million, but he agreed to sell for $5.5 million, a price that promised enough seed money for exploration work he’s doing elsewhere in southwestern Idaho and northern Nevada.

“My family legacy is a lot better off than being stuck with an environmental issue,” Collord said.