Town faces tough choice between gold and land


May 03, 1992|By Jill Leovy | Jill Leovy,Seattle Times

CHESAW, Washington -- Old-timers in this remote corner of the state have waited a lifetime for a new gold rush in the rugged hills of the Okanogan.

It was gold that first brought settlers here at the turn of the century. Abandoned log shacks from that era dot the roadside on the winding route connecting Chesaw to Tonasket. Even today, locals say, a few determined gold hunters dwell in the hills, picking away at old claims and dreaming of striking it rich.

Now a major gold deposit has been discovered on Buckhorn Mountain. The announcement in February has helped fuel a prospecting frenzy: Twenty-two areas of the county are being examined for gold deposits.

But the find has wrenched apart a tiny community of philosophical opposites -- back-to-earth hippies and organic farmers on one side, ranchers and loggers on the other. The two groups are locked in a battle for the future of the land.

At the heart of this cultural clash is a proposal to blast a large open-pit gold mine in the side of Buckhorn Mountain, flanked by a 115-acre, plastic-lined waste pond to be laced with cyanide.

A joint venture of Battle Mountain Gold Co. of Texas and Crown Resources of Denver plans to blast a 350-foot hole in Buckhorn's side, grind the rock into powder and leach it with cyanide, all to extract a quantity of gold that -- after eight to 10 years of mining -- would fit into the back of a pickup truck and sell for hundreds of millions of dollars.

To the area's older ranchers and loggers, the project represents hope for a county of 33,350 where about 16 percent of the work force is unemployed.

The project has obsessed this community for months. At every gathering place, from the natural food co-op to a dusty driveway where farmers share a beer after work, conversations turn on the technicalities of tailings-pond linings and rock slurries.

"This is all we talk about when we get together," said mine opponent Judy Howlett, who raises flowers and rabbits on a farm near Chesaw.

Located in north-central Washington, Okanogan County is a rocky, silent expanse of dry forests and grassy valleys. Chesaw, the town at the base of 5,600-foot Buckhorn Mountain, is almost a ghost town. Once the home of hundreds, it now boasts a population of 23 clustered in mobile homes around a general store.

Chesaw resident Bob Hirst, a retired restaurant owner, says he expects the mine to help the region's depressed economy, hit hard by bad times for timber and farming.

"The best times are gone. But they could come back," he said.

Mr. Hirst is the son of a miner who migrated to the Okanogan during the gold-rush days. He has held onto his father's mining claims for 60 years, waiting for them to bear fruit. Now, he said, he has finally been able to lease them to exploration firms.

For the members of the loose-knit hippie community, however, the proposed mine is anathema to the values they've stood by through decades of change.

The Okanogan highlands became home to a community of Haight-Ashbury veterans, hippies and organic farmers during the back-to-the-land movement of the late '60s and early '70s. Over the years their numbers have dropped, but many still live here in tepees or cabins, and about 16 live on a communal farm called Triple Creek, which lies in the shadow of Buckhorn Mountain.

Triple Creek members fear the mine would disrupt their peaceful setting with blasting and truck traffic, and pollute their water. It's also an offense to their philosophy of "living light," existing with as little impact on the land as possible.

The irony of it is not lost on them: After two decades of clinging to their values despite hardship, defections and ridicule, these latter-day hippies are suddenly faced with living 3 miles from what to them seems the most extreme form of industrial exploitation of the land.

"It's like the Garden of Eden had to have its poison apple," said Jonika Mountainfire, a 50-year-old commune member.

But despite the hostility, there is still common ground between the extremes in the highlands. Concerns for clean water and the rural character of the region are echoed by ranchers and hippies alike. As one rancher put it, without water the land is worth nothing to anyone.

Roger Simon is on vacation. His column will resume May 6.

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