A federal judge has ruled in favor of the U.S. Forest Service in a dispute between federal officials and Lincoln-area miners that brought the Oath Keepers to the mountain town in 2015.
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Charles C. Lovell ordered Intermountain Mining and Refining, LLC to remove locks from gates, signs, explosives and a garage from an unpatented mining claim east of Lincoln. A counterclaim filed by the company and its principals demanding an injunction against the Forest Service from interfering with mining was dismissed.
The case stems from the late George Kornec, who lived at the White Hope Mine near Rogers Pass for much of his life.
After numerous disputes with federal officials over work on the claim, Kornec and partner Philip Nappo requested that the Oath Keepers – a group that grew to national notoriety as armed supporters of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy – intervene to halt what they believed was unlawful harassment and interference with mining. In August 2015 the Oath Keepers and groups such as the Idaho III% began a “security detail” at the mine, openly carrying firearms and advising that federal officials entering the property would be arrested. They demanded the miners receive a day in court, as a result the federal government filed suit.
The dispute largely centered on mining documents that Kornec filed one day late in 1986, causing legal abandonment of the claims. The claims originated in the 1920s, and had the abandonment not occurred, could have been patented and become private property. But the abandonment made White Hope subject to 1955 mining laws that granted surface rights to the Forest Service.
The Forest Service alleged that the miners were out of compliance with federal regulations due to the construction of a garage, storage of explosives, blocking public access and not having an approved operating plan.
Kornec and Nappo contended that an operations plan was unneeded due to the original date of the mining claims, totaling more than 1,000 acres. In a 2015 Interview, Kornec told the Independent Record that regardless of the 1986 late filing, the claims had always been occupied and he believed legally constituted private property.
Kornec said that on the last day to file in 1986, he had the paperwork notarized in Helena and immediately mailed the affidavit to the BLM. It was later discovered that the mail was postmarked the following day, leading to BLM's decision to invalidate.
"At that time we didn't have all this information, so we just automatically refiled and it was to relocate the same claims," Kornec said in 2015. "The only thing that changed was the BLM serial number on them."
Despite believing his claims to be private property, Kornec agreed to submit operating plans to the Forest Service. The first plan was accepted in 2009 and reauthorized in 2012. It expired in 2014.
Later in 2014 the Forest Service discovered a garage constructed on site without authorization. The garage, some cutting of firewood and the locking of a Forest Service gate led to letters of noncompliance, which included demands to remove the garage. Kornec agreed to pay for the firewood.
Kornec contended that the Forest Service was harassing him and threatened to physically destroy his property. The court case would be a chance to stand up to federal overreach and what he saw as a routine policy of violating individual rights, he said.
Kornec died in 2016 at the age of 83, but family and attorneys resolved to see the case through.
“The claims in the form of this counterclaim are brought because of the continued harassment of Kornec and Nappo as they carry on their lawful activities working their mining claims which are their vested private property interests,” their attorneys wrote in court filings.
In Lovell’s Feb. 21 decision, the judge ruled against the argument that the claims were exempt from federal regulations due to their 1924 origination. The 1986 late submission constituted abandonment and put the claims under regulation by the Forest Service.
“Although defendants have a property interest in their unpatented mining claims, that property interest is limited by both the Organic Administration Act of 1897 and the Surface Resources and Multiple Use Act of 1955,” Lovell wrote. “Defendants are not entitled to the injunctive and declaratory relief sought in their counterclaim.”
Lovell further ruled that the Forest Service acted within the law in an attempt to enforce federal mining regulations.
The order gives Intermountain until June 30 to remove unauthorized locks, signs, explosives and the garage. After that date, the Forest Service may enter the claims for removal and charge costs of removal and reclamation.
Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest Supervisor Bill Avey said little if anything has been going on at the claim in the more than three years since the lawsuit was filed.
“First and foremost, we’re pleased that the situation was resolved peacefully and with no one getting hurt,” he said. “Secondly, the decision strongly affirmed the Forest Service position and our authority and duty to manage national forest resources on behalf of all Americans.”
The Forest Service will work with Nappo and the company to provide access to the claim and to mine under federal regulations, Avey said.
A request for comment from Kornec and Nappo’s attorney was not returned in time for this story.
A request for comment from the Oath Keepers was also not returned.