Sand Traps

There are thousands of abandoned mines in California's desert parks, and balancing visitor safety with conservation poses more challenges than you might expect.


By Seth Shteir


When Bob Bryson saw two large, snowy-white barn owls erupt from the entrance of an old mine shaft in Mojave National Preserve last winter, he was instantly reminded why he treasures his position as the park’s chief of natural resource management. But the very same moment reminded him of one of the job’s biggest headaches. More than 140 years of mining activity have turned California’s desert landscape into a block of Swiss cheese, with mine shafts and tunnel openings dotting the surface. And it’s more than just an eyesore. Between 1999 and 2007, 33 people were killed in abandoned mine accidents in the western United States. Hikers have fallen down vertical shafts and off-road vehicles have plunged into open pits. Inside the mines, the hazards multiply: potential cave-ins, toxic gases, and old, unstable sticks of dynamite make every step perilous. “Anytime you go below ground you’re taking a risk,” says Bryson.

It’s a big problem for the state of California and its relatively young desert parks. Decades of gold, silver, copper, lead, uranium, and mercury exploration have generated approximately 47,000 abandoned mines, including more than 30,000 on federal land. At last count, Mojave had 3,000 abandoned mines, and thousands more can be found in Joshua Tree and Death Valley. A recent Department of Interior report reveals that although the Park Service has taken some positive steps to alleviate the dangers, the agency needs to do more. But that requires more funding and manpower than many of these parks can afford. You can’t simply plug the entrances with dirt or pave them over with asphalt without causing serious repercussions to the environment and the region’s cultural history.

Abandoned mines provide refuge for bats, snakes, desert tortoises, bobcats, mountain lions, songbirds, and even bighorn sheep. Although animals face some of the same dangers that threaten humans (desert tortoises have been known to fall into shafts), these spaces have nonetheless evolved into wildlife habitat. So the Park Service can’t just board up entrances—the agency has to rig wildlife-friendly structures, like “bat gates” and “tortoise trots,” that allow animals to come and go.

Add to that the cultural value that comes with the region’s mining history. “The biggest challenge is finding a balance between protecting cultural resources, wildlife, and people,” says Linda Manning, a wildlife biologist at Death Valley, who is tasked with resolving many of the biggest challenges posed by these sites.

Fortunately, Joshua Tree has found ways to build custom mine covers and gates. Volunteers do some of the work, and visitor entrance fees help pay for materials and equipment. As a result, 30 of its 120 hazardous mine sites—the ones that are closest to roads, trails, and highly visible sites—are now secure.

But that formula doesn’t work for every park. Mojave, for instance, doesn’t collect visitor fees, and Death Valley doesn’t have enough trained staff to inventory the 6,000 to 10,000 mines within its borders. Even if staffing weren’t an issue, stabilizing complex vertical shafts and mine openings can cost thousands of dollars. (Securing Death Valley’s Keane Wonder Mine cost a whopping $750,000.) In Joshua Tree, crews have to travel to remote wilderness areas where there are no roads and where vehicles are prohibited. Their only option is to move personnel and materials by helicopter, and that’s not cheap.

Without dedicated funding, parks are forced to borrow money from other park programs, which puts more strain on a budget that was underfunded to begin with. But there’s potential relief in sight. This February, the nation’s highly publicized Economic Stimulus Package could devote as much as $50 million to close abandoned mines at park units across the country—part of a park funding package that could create up to 35,000 jobs. On another front, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has introduced legislation to fund the clean-up of abandoned mine sites using royalties and reclamation fees from hard rock mines. It’s a much-needed revision of the General Mining Act of 1872—the law that originally authorized mining on public lands, but didn’t require mining operations to fund environmental clean-up or mitigate safety hazards. 

“When you punch thousands of holes in the earth, there are going to be some serious consequences,” says Mike Cipra, NPCA’s desert program manager. “Park Service managers have the challenging job of making sure visitors are safe while protecting wildlife habitat and preserving the historic value of our mining history. No one should have to deal with these complex and intersecting issues on a shoestring budget, so it’s great to see our leaders in Washington, D.C., step to the plate to do something about it.”

Seth Shteir tackles air and climate issues in NPCA's California Desert Office.

This article appears in the Spring 2009 issue.

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