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Amateur Explorers and Land Managers At Odds Over Abandoned Mines

Abandoned mines are at the center of a quiet controversy between independent explorers and land management agencies. State and federal officials see them as a safety hazard, so government agencies close hundreds of abandoned mines in Utah every year. But one group wants to keep them open.

About seventy-five people are crowded into a room at the West Jordan Library. Stuart Burgess is at the front, giving a presentation on ghost towns and abandoned mines in Utah.

“At its peak, Jacob City had over 150 claims and a population of 300. Now you can imagine, if you’ve been up there, 300 is quite a few. That’s a lot of people to fit up there,” says Burgess.

Burgess is the co-founder of a group called Mojave Underground. It’s a non-profit dedicated to exploring, documenting and preserving abandoned mines and historical areas throughout the western United States. The organization is based in Utah, and Burgess says its members are especially interested in exploring mines.

“We do a lot of pictures and we teach people to be safe when they’re exploring, and a lot of education. And then occasionally we do some preservation projects: hauling out ore cars or restoring hoists, working with land owners   that maybe want to get rid of mining equipment because they don’t want it anymore,” says Burgess.

Burgess became interested in exploring mines when he was a kid. He says his parents took the family to a lot of ghost towns and historical sites.

“And we’d look at buildings, and we’d look at plaques, and we’d go to museums, but the holes in the ground always drew my attention. And my mom said, ‘stay out of there, that’s dangerous. Don’t go in.’ So as soon as I was old enough to get a car and drive, I went straight out to those same sites and into mines,” says Burgess

No one knows exactly how many abandoned mines are in Utah, but some estimates put the number as high as twenty thousand.  The Bureau of Land Management’s website says that with a budget of 130 million dollars, there are enough resources to close about thirty five hundred mines throughout the western US in a year.  Terry Snyder is a geologist for the Bureau of Land Management’s Utah office. She says abandoned mines are dangerous to anyone who wanders inside. With one wrong move, explorers could fall down a shaft or the man-made tunnels could collapse. But, she points out, there are also invisible threats.

“Methane gas, carbon dioxide,” says Snyder.

It’s common to find wild animals and old dynamite in abandoned mines. They might also have head frames and ladders made of old wood that might be rotting. Snyder says no one is safe from these dangers.

“Even experienced miners make mistakes and it’s horrible when you lose someone in a situation that could have been prevented,” says Snyder.

BLM officials estimate that about 30 people in the United States die in abandoned mines or quarries every year. The last documented fatalities in Utah were in 2005, when four people drowned in an underwater passageway in a cave that was expanded by humans, which qualifies it as a mine. Before that, the last Utah death was in 1999 when a man on an ATV fell into a mine shaft.

Kiel Renwick is a hobby explorer and member of Mojave Underground who started going into mines about seven years ago. He acknowledges that mines can be dangerous – if you’re not prepared. But he points out that more people die in hiking accidents than in mines.

“You have to be aware of your surroundings. It’s just like any hobby. You know, accidents happen,” says Renwick.

He says his biggest issue with abandoned mine reclamation is that they just get filled in, which erases the years of history inside them.

“Just put a gate on it. And that way if you ever had anything in there that could be researched later, or pictures later, you know, at least document it. Nobody will ever know now,” says Renwick.

Technically, it’s legal for anyone to enter an abandoned mine on public land unless it’s gated or there are No Trespassing signs, but Snyder and others at the BLM discourage it.

“I think the important thing is to realize that you can take precautions, but abandoned mines are inherently dangerous,” says Snyder.

Meanwhile, Burgess and active members of Mojave Underground remain confident that their research, experience and precautionary measures are enough to keep them safe. 

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