Miner's $1-Billion Suit: Big Stakes in Bighorn Country

March 10, 1985|PAT BRENNAN | Times Staff Writer

Ron Curtis says only two things prevent him from becoming a millionaire: the federal government and conservationists.

Curtis says he could make millions by mining a 1,500-acre tungsten claim that his father staked out in the San Gabriel Mountains about 30 years ago. But he says the obstacles are so great that he may have to make his millions by suing instead.

Curtis has filed a $1.25-billion lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles that contends that the federal government and two of its agencies have engaged in fraud and conspiracy that preclude his free access to his claim, worth an estimated $250 million.

The lawsuit is the latest chapter in the continuing saga of the Curtis Tungsten Mine, a story of Nelson bighorn sheep, a twisting, dusty road and a tungsten deposit that the Bureau of Land Management says is the largest in the nation.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 14, 1985 Home Edition San Gabriel Valley Part 9 Page 3 Column 1 Zones Desk 2 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction
In a story about tungsten miner Ron Curtis in Sunday's San Gabriel Valley section, information about the size of Curtis' mining claim was incorrectly attributed to the Bureau of Land Management. The source of the information was the U.S. Bureau of Mines. Philip T. Stafford, incorrectly identified as an official of the Bureau of Land management, is a tungsten specialist with the Bureau of Mines in Washington, D.C.

"Believe it or not, what I have is better than gold," Curtis said.

The mine is in a corner of the Sheep Mountain Wilderness area and can be reached only by traveling a once-abandoned dirt road that Curtis and his wife, Claire, re-forged with picks and shovels a decade ago. He stopped using a lower road to the canyon in 1980 because it damaged his vehicles and was flooded most of the year.

It is the road--actually the use of the road--that angers conservationists, who say it passes through a lambing area for a herd of perhaps 200 sheep, endangering their population. The sheep roam the countryside at will.

But Curtis says his biggest battle is with the federal government, which has included his claim in a wilderness area and has limited his access to the mine. Curtis filed his lawsuit last year against the Department of Agriculture, amending the suit this January to include the Bureau of Land Management and the federal government itself as defendants.

Cutis' attorney, Ronald Cohen, said a major issue in the suit is the failure of the U.S. Forest Service, a division of the Department of Agriculture, to mention the mine in a report to Congress that served as the basis for legislation making Sheep Mountain a wilderness area last year.

About 8.6 million acres were declared wilderness as part of a legislative package, including 3.2 million acres in California. Wilderness means the land is preserved forever from new development. New uses are strictly limited to recreation and research. Expansion of existing operations is subject to review by federal agencies.

Curtis, whose claim rights were not affected by the wilderness designation, contends that the designation imposes severe limits on the potential expansion of his five-man, $1,100-a-day operation.

Curtis also contends that the federal agencies want to gain control of it and sell it to a large corporation in order to reap royalty payments.

Forest Service officials declined to specify what limits would be imposed on Curtis if he attempted to expand. The officials said Curtis can operate as he is indefinitely because his existing operating plan was approved in 1978, before the area was designated as wilderness.

Curtis said that as part of a wilderness area, his land has become part of the public domain, which he contends is an illegal "taking" of his property by the government. He contends that the wilderness designation is a violation of the federal Mining Claims Act of 1872, which guarantees miners the right to stake and develop their claims.

The request for $1.25 billion in damages, Curtis admits, is somewhat steep. But he said it includes the projected value of the mine plus $750 million in punitive damages, $250 million for the mine and $250 million for confiscation of his rights to the road. Curtis reasons that only a sum that large could actually penalize the government.

"If you're going to jump out, you might as well jump out big," he said.

U.S. Atty. Jim Arnold has declined to comment on the case, but has filed a motion to dismiss, saying the case should be heard in the U.S. Court of Claims. Federal District Judge Robert J. Kelleher is scheduled to hear the motion March 25.

Charlie McDonald, environmental specialist for Angeles National Forest, acknowledges that the Forest Service's environmental report that led to the wilderness legislation, known as RARE II, did not contain any reference to Curtis' mine. He said the information probably was omitted to save space.

"My guess is, RARE II was just too broad to look at on that scale," McDonald said. "It covered all of the United States and it couldn't get into any specific mining operation. It's only one tungsten mine. Curtis was recognized but, he was not specifically mentioned."

McDonald said information about the mine was included in working papers stored at the Forest Service supervisor's headquarters in Pasadena.

Rights Violated

But Robert Terrell, a professional staff member who advises the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee before which Curtis testified, said he believes Curtis' rights have been violated.

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