Posted by: Cody Coyote | July 1, 2010

SHAKEDOWN STREET The Chief Joseph Scenic Haul Road

heavy load on Chief Joe

A scenic drive if there ever was ...

The saloons in  Cooke City Montana are literally wallpapered with old mining company stock certificates . If they could speak , those filigreed paper masterpieces would tell a sordid story of company after company going broke since the first specks of  gold were found by four fur trappers moonlighting as prospectors in 1869.  The following year, a prospective golddigger named Jack Crandall and his partner were making their way through the upper Clarks Fork  River country of Wyoming Territory , drawn to the rumor of that new Montana goldstrike  as inexorably as horseflies are drawn to a mule’s rump. A Blackfoot war party bushwhacked  the two , killing them and impaling their heads on their pickaxes as a warning to all future prospectors. The future prospectors didn’t get the memo.  Jack Crandall is remembered to these days by having the huge west fork of the Clarks Fork named for him. At least he has something to show for his hardscrabble ways and brutal demise.  Many hundreds of prospectors and the mining moguls were drawn  to the rump of Mount Republic and Henderson Mountain and Scotch Bonnet Peak and the infamous Crown Butte . Most  are long forgotten , The most populous neighborhood in Cooke City is the cemetary, its lodgers leaving behind the wooden wreckage and rusting iron spoils of their “Gold Too Far” dreams accumulated for fourteen decades.  And of course all that future wallpaper.

Over 5000 pounds of gold were shipped from Cooke City  from 1870 through 1955, worth  about $ 80 million  at today’s price . It seems  like a lot of money , but it’s roughly the sum that passes through the Cody Wyoming’s  Wal-Mart Supercenter as gross receipts in about 500 day’s time.
The world’s largest retailer has something that Cooke City mining ventures never had: good transportation. Wal-Mart can move tons of product to market with its fleets of semi-trucks over modern roads. While it’s hard work , it’s taken for granted the stuff will arrive in a timely  efficient cost effective manner. On the other hand , up in Cooke City it was lack of transportation that kept profitability over the horizon. It was a cruel twist of geology and geography that the Lower 48’s most lustrous lodes of gold were buried in a place so difficult to get to and from. The New World Mining District above Cooke City has at least a billion dollars in precious metal sequestered  in the convoluted mountains, surrounded by the fossil evidence of attempts to extract it and ship it to the outside world. The stark black and white photos  nailed in front of the varnished wallpaper show images of grim men in heavy clothes, ramshackle buildings, and Victorian steampunk mining contraptions of pig iron. What they don’t show are narrow gauge railways. This was Cooke City Montana c. 1890 , not Cripple Creek Colorado or  the high Sierra gold rush venues. Cooke City was at the edge of the known universe.
 These days , it’s still a long ways from anywhere. It’s the most isolated village in the big state of  Montana, population maybe 150  and reachable only through Wyoming. Weather permitting.

GratefulDead gold LP

The actual Gold Record given to the Grateful Dead band for their 1978 LP " Shakedown Street " is now on the wall of the Miner's Saloon in downtown Cooke City. Go figure.

An ironic example of  the foregone Gold Era can be seen today  in Cooke City on the wall of the Miner’s Saloon. There in the most unlikely of settings behind  glass in a framed shadowbox  wired with motion sensors  is the bona fide Gold Record awarded to the legendary Grateful Dead  Band for their 1978 LP album “ Shakedown Street “.  The irony of that is not lost; the band known for its smiling skeleton iconography and acid folk rock. The ghosts of the gold mines are laughing their rumps off these days.  Acid flows freely through the fringe of Cooke City. There still be shakedowns , indeed. The Tomb Raiders and Highway Robbers are coming.
The gold business in Cooke City has in recent years morphed from  extracting particles of precious metal from ore to extracting plastic from the wallets of rumpled tourists.  There must be gold in them there burgers and beer. Your correspondent delivered $ 31 coin of the realm  for two of each at the cafe across Shakedown Street ( US Hwy 212) . The tourist trap next door sells cheap jewelry and trinkets of Black Hills Gold imported from South Dakota  right alongside the t-shirts and little plastic grizzly bears imported from China.

If you had asked  before April Fool’s day this year if  gold mining would ever be done again in Cooke  City ,  the gentrified yuppie knocking back a four dollar  bottle of  Moose Drool would have responded  something like “No, not to my knowledge . The government bought out all the old mines and claims when Bill Clinton  ran off Noranda  “.
Across the creek from the Cooke City Cemetary at the site of the defunct McLaren Brothers mill , the skeletons of the sordid gold mining legacy days are being exhumed .  Some would call it  state sanctioned graverobbing.

What , pray tell , does any of this have to do with Wyoming?


Hint:  4,000 heavy haul trucks  .

No less an entity than the Montana Department of Environmental Quality is revving up the latest attempt to transport Cooke City gold to the outside world at a profit. There’s always been money to be made in graverobbing, digging up remains  to purloin the gold .     On  May 5 this year,  the Montana DEQ working through its Mine Waste Cleanup Bureau – Abandoned Mines Section awarded a $ 21 million contract to accomplish what the mega-rich Canadian-based  multinational  mineral corporation Noranda could not do in the 1990’s, nor the mining ventures of the 1890’s. They want to send thousands of heavy truckloads of gold-bearing rock from  Cooke City to a smelter hundreds of miles away with every hope of recovering enough shiny yellow metal to cover the costs, pay for the trip, and maybe even flocculate a little profit.  Recall that Noranda’s  huge Crown Butte-New World Mine proposal ended in a $ 64 million buyout by the federal government, of which half was to go towards complete reclamation of the New World mining district, now ongoing. In 1996 President Bill Clinton stood on a hill above  Soda Butte Creek just inside Yellowstone to celebrate Noranda being handed their rump , resulting from  surgical strikes of  Clean Water Act  regulations to Noranda’s Achilles heel.  Clinton came, he spoke, we listened, and all went home thinking the uttermost end of gold mining in Cooke City had come , a victory for the forces of altruistic environmentalism over the amoral greed of industry.
Not quite.

The cleanup of the Crown Butte-Noranda holdings is ongoing , and does not come into this narrative. But somehow the orphan stepchild of Cooke City’s mining legacy— the old 30 acre McLaren mill site abutting the city limits of Cooke City but abandoned since 1955—was not part of the federal New World buyout and reclamation deal.  The McLaren tailings site  lies south of the highway and straddles Soda Butte Creek, slowly poisoning it with a half million tons of acidifying mine waste. Noranda never wanted the McLaren ; never acquired it. Like tens of thousands of abandoned mines scattered about the West, the McLaren mill site is a toxic asset, forsaken  when their owners simply walked away without fear of penalty , as they were allowed to do under the egregious  l’aissez  faire provisions of the federal 1872 Mining Act  .  With no other party willing to step up, the Montana DEQ took it upon themselves to clean up the  McLaren and  put Soda Butte Creek into detox. The Forest Service owned  the McLaren  by default, and it took six years for Montana DEQ acting through the US Department of Justice to get clear title to it, including mineral rights.  ( Only the Forest Service could take six years to unload a toxic asset to a willing buyer). Then and only then could an engineered plan for reclaiming the McLaren and restoring Soda Butte Creek be advanced.

And it’s a very good workable plan—with one huge caveat.
It pimps the crown jewel of Wyoming’s scenic highway system without remorse or recompense. Wyoming’s  Chief Joseph Scenic Highway is about to become Montana’s  extended yellow brick road haul route . Shakedown Street , indeed.

An oblique 3D view in Google Earth looking slightly east of north towards the high Beartooth and Stillwater Ranges with Cooke City and the adjacent McLaren mill tailings site in context with the New World Mining district. ( Click image for larger view)

Nobody in their right mind could be against Montana DEQ’s $ 20 million project to clean up the McLaren pits  and restore Soda Butte Creek ,  both noble and worthy endeavours. Soda Butte Creek is s-o-o-o-o  polluted by the McLaren’s 30 acres of mine excrement  straddling it, in some places fifty feet deep behind a shaky dam; a repository of  acid mine waste as  the stuff is known.  Mixed with oxygen from the atmosphere and hydrogen in running water, the McLaren tailings have generated high concentrations of sulfuric acid  turning  the streambed a bright  orange precipitate, killing everything in the aquatic food chain from single celled organisms up to Trout , for miles downstream.  All the way into Yellowstone Park actually, whose boundary is four miles down the road from Cooke City.  Soda Butte Creek is one of the largest tributaries of the long Lamar River which in turn feeds the mighty Yellowstone River .


Work has already begun on reclaiming the McLaren mill tailings site and restoring Soda Butte creek to full biological health.

Montana DEQ is keystoning the McLaren cleanup project by proclaiming the genius of using some of the mine tailings themselves to pay for hauling away the undesired  ‘excess’ material .     But does the end justify the means ?  Those “means” are dispatching a fleet of 10-axle heavy tandem belly dump trucks  on a 318 mile  haul one way from Cooke City to the Golden Sunlight Mine smelter at Whitehall, Montana near the mecca of Montana mining, Butte. Through Wyoming.

haul route

The planned haul route from Cooke City , Montana out and around to Whitehall , Montana , a 318 mile trip one way with the 47 miles Chief Joseph Highway in Wyoming being the crucial connector. It's the yellow segment at the lower right. Yellowstone Park is at lower center ; Cody is located near the lower right corner. ( Google Earth image - click image for larger view )

Montana DEQ wants to haul  13 to 30 percent of  the massive McLaren mine waste to Whitehall, requiring an estimated  1500 to 3600 outbound  truckloads  to do it , and presumably the same number  deadheading back.  Nobody knows how many trucks, honestly. The trucks would begin running after spring thaw  next year , grinding gears all through the summer and early autumn   till the weather turns cold and  the elk and  seasonal people migrate to winter range  , around the first of October.

This is a good place to mention that Montana is planning to “ recycle” between $ 24 million and $ 30 million in used gold  from the McLaren . After all, the state motto of Montana is “ Oro y Plata “ , Spanish for ‘gold and silver’. They don’t call Montana ‘The Treasure State’ for naught.

Hardrock mining is as much in the Montana  political genome as domestic bovines herded by horsemen with big hats are the double helix of Wyoming .


The Montana state seal... a shovel, a pickaxe, a plow , and the motto "Gold and silver"

If all goes well  and the price of gold stays north of  say, $ 1100 a Troy ounce, a second year of hauling will follow in summer 2012  After all, there’s a whopping 1/10th of an ounce of gold per ton of the choicer McLaren leavings, which by gold industry standards is said to be positively plush with the stuff , a testament  to on-site  mining technology being  so crude 80 years ago that it left a snootful of gold in every ton of mill tailings. From the heap of   500,000 tons of mill tailings in the McLaren site, Montana DEQ wants to haul away between 68,000 and 148,000 tons of it  for the latent gold.
The only viable route for transshipping anything heavier than a  mule from Cooke City to the outside world is through Wyoming.  More to the point, Montana DEQ’s giddy venture into Cooke City’s accursed gold legacy requires appropriating Wyoming State Highway 296 ,  the magnificent  passageway better known as the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway .


The Chief Joseph Scenic Highway wasn't exactly designed to handle heavy truck traffic when upgrading the old gravel road was begun in the mid-1960's , taking 31 years to complete. Case in point: an unbroken 7 mile No Passing zone on the west side of Dead Indian Hill. The highway is a secondary road, somewhat narrower and less robust than primary highways. Montana DEQ considers the Chief Joe to be a freely available public haul road for their needs, even though it's wholly in Wyoming

The Chief Joe is 47 miles of sidewinder  highway with steep grades and sharp switchbacks whose profile transcends 3000 vertical feet, but has only two brief stretches of level straightaway , one down near its eastern juncture and the other not far from Jack Crandall’s memorial marker. It was never designed as a haul road. It is in fact a medium duty , somewhat narrow , “ collector” route , a secondary highway whose ongoing upkeep and repairs costs are entirely borne by the State of Wyoming. It’s primarily  a tourist corridor for the nearly 200,000 vehicles that use it annually , and assured access for the 200 or so yearround residents of Sunlight Basin, Crandall, and the upper Clarks Fork River . It took  31 years in six legs to  upgrade the Chief Joe from a gravel road to a fully fledged paved route beginning in 1964 and dedicated in 1995 just as Noranda was coming to a full boil . If replicated today  the highway would cost in the vicinity  of $ 150 million  to build anew. Wyoming’s official state highway map shows not less than 15 Scenic Highways or Scenic Byways. The Chief Joe  was the first of these , and remains the crown jewel.

The Chief Joseph Scenic  begins 16 miles north of Cody , forking  west from  the more robust Wyoming Hwy 120 North primary  that  runs the flat boring badlands of the Absaroka Front on its way to the Big Box Stores in Billings . The Chief Joe takes a bearing diagonally across Sunlight , Crandall, and Clarks Fork  to join at the hip  with  the King of all scenic highways, the Beartooth All American Road, 16 miles east of Cooke City. The Beartooth Highway , which veteran CBS news personality and road reporter Charles Kuralt forever etched in travel annals as the most beautiful highway in America ,  is also mostly in Wyoming  much to Montana’s chagrin . In Wyoming, tourism is gold, and the Beartooth and Chief Joe  Scenic Highways are mother lodes of that precious commodity. Wyoming has no choice in sharing the Beartooth road. It begins and ends in Montana, and was the only highway constructed under the 1930 National Parks Approach Act. It is the western terminus of US Hwy 212 , which begins  in humility somewhere in exurban Minnesota and heads across South Dakota without distinction .Thanks to interstate commerce provisions and the fact the Wyoming State Highway 296- the Chief Joe road – is  a public thoroughfare, Wyoming has surprisingly few options in controlling the traffic over it.  Even though it’s a state road.  It’s like City Hall  building  the public sidewalk in front of your home but requiring you to maintain it ,  i. e. shovel the snow , while everyone can use it  as common byway. (You retain the liability, too .  Grrr….)

There are three routes in or out of Cooke City. West through Yellowstone Park  is the Lamar Valley road, open year round even in the throes of those famous 40 Below Winters, and Cooke City’s lifeline  since the county seat of Park County , Montana is  100 miles thataway up in Livingston .  Even though Yellowstone Park would be the prime beneficiary of the restoration of Soda Butte Creek, and the work is being done by a government, using the Lamar Valley road to transport heavy trucks outbound is not an option , administratively or physically . The Lamar Valley Cut-Off  was considered as a haul route , including  the option of escorted nighttime convoys of trucks. While it would also knock over 100 miles off the slog to Whitehall ,  heavy trucks would quickly destroy the fragile (substandard) Park Service blacktop.

The route northeasterly of Cooke City is the aforementioned Beartooth Highway ascending  up and over the granitic massifs  lofting almost  3,000 feet higher than the crest of the Chief Joe across two alpine summits before a hellbound descent into Red Lodge. Not even Zeus himself besotted  on blue mushroom ambrosia would   consider  driving a heavy truck pulling  two belly dump trailers on a wickedly serpentine road  up to 10,940 feet and back to the Late Pleistocene , and do this  four thousand times .  To wit:


SUMMER SOLSTICE (2004) on the Beartooth Highway ©

That leaves trucking the  Chief Joseph Scenic Highway  by default. But there are definitely issues  with that route.  Beginning with the fact that Montana DEQ officials didn’t bother to contact anyone in Wyoming with the revelation they were doing this ‘Chief Joseph Scenic Haul Road’  scheme until March 27 , mostly an afterthought well after the bids were opened on  February 18 , but before the  contract was awarded on May 5.
That error of omission— whether due to arrogance innot extending a professional courtesy , an overt attempt to mask that part of the plan till after it was a done deal  , or simply a  bureaucratic faux pas — is a huge sore point in Wyoming circles. DEQ planners did research Wyoming highway regulations and load limits on line , and a Montana DEQ  engineer did an internal transportation compliance report with respect to the Chief Joseph Highway , but that was not vetted with the Wyoming  Department of Transportation ( Wy-Dot) either by legal requirement or as a professional courtesy.  Strike 1.

Never mind that a mandatory  on-site walk thru of the McLaren  project  was required of all prospective contractors back in October 2009 which presented the offsite hauling alternative without a heads up to Wyoming. Strike 2. Never mind that the initial planning to clean up the McLaren went back to the year 2002. Ball 1.  Never mind that the full project cannot proceed without the use of a Wyoming state highway.  Ball 2. When it came time to roll up the sleeves and go to work , Wyoming  Department of Transportation  (Wy-DOT) and other state officials were not in the Big Loop.

They were for all practical purposes blindsided.

Strike 3, a curve ball  that cut the low outside corner. The first any WY-DOT person heard about this project was no earlier than March 27  according to their phone/e-mail  records, said Wy-DOT District Engineer Shelby Carlson  from her office in Basin , a time frame echoed by her boss Del McOmie the Chief Engineer down in Cheyenne. Calls to other Wy-DOT personnel and the Chairman of the Wy-DOT Commission , appointee  Charlie Monk of Lovell , confirmed  the same in short order before they had any time to get their stories straight.  It’s true. Nobody in Wyoming had heard about this. Really.

How many trucks ? Hauling what ? When ?  Why?  Or as the Law in these parts , Park County Wyoming Sheriff Scott Steward , put it succinctly when he was lightly briefed about this on June 14 , “ I knew nothing about this till now. What a freaking mess this is going to be…”.  
  This might be a good spot  to note that the Director of the whole of Wyoming Department of Transportation  , John Cox, came up through the ranks  not in the traditional blue collar asphalt and reflector post channels but in starch collar Smokey-hatted law enforcement channels — 28 years including seven years managing the Wyoming Highway Patrol, the guns and badge agency who actually pulls over big trucks to enforce  things like weight, brakes, lights, log books, and sundry other DOT regulations.

By late June, the communication channels between Montana DEQ  and Wy-DOT were much more open , with rumors of a peace pipe going around. That is good and well, but  Wyoming leaders said off the record there were real “trust issues”  and those will shade the relationship until a haul plan is presented from Montana DEQ (or more likely the contractor doing the hauling) , and that plan is vetted by Wy-DOT  where the rubber meets the road. No upfront offers of road mitigation are on the table, however.

[ If there is a consolation here, it’s that Montana DEQ was no more ready for being called to answer for  appropriating a Wyoming highway into their plans without telling Wyoming , than Wyoming was in having their own highway rustled out from under their noses… ]

Park County Wyoming’s concerns are a lot like the Groundhog Day’ movie. It’s all coming around again. The county’s leaders wrestled with the Noranda-Crown Butte project in the early 90’s because nearly all the negative  impacts from the $ 600 million New World mine were going to fall in Wyoming while all the positives such as money and employment and tax revenue were staying in Montana . Park County had deep concerns about public safety ,  hazardous materials , fuel spills, emergency first responders , increased costs across the board for everything from law enforcement  to social services being foisted onto their county backs  from an industrial  project in another state.    The mantra used by environmentalists back during the Battle of Noranda is maybe more pertinent today than it was then : “ Montana gets the gold, Wyoming gets the shaft “ .  Before it was over even the most conservative Republican pro-business anti-enviro elected leader in Park County Wyoming  ( basically , that’s all of them )  was chanting the mantra.

For Jill and Bill , it's Groundhog Day again. The Park County Commissioners have been in this movie before. Siggins was on the board of Commissioners and Brewer the County Sheriff back in the 1990's when Noranda-Crown Butte was all the rage. Park County officials are getting up to speed about the Montana DEQ's plans , with a sense of dejá vu.

The new Chief Joseph Scenic Haul Road scheme went public in a news release from Montana DEQ on June 2nd , if you read between the lines . Your correspondent realized right away there is only one road outta there, and it’s not in Montana.  Montana DEQ sorta blew by that factoid. Amid the  gilded rhetoric  of the release was the following  paragraph: “We expect this plan to be as good as gold” , said Richard Opper, Director of Montana DEQ. “We’re recycling the gold left behind in tailings from old milling done 80 years ago. This is another example of Governor Schweitzer’s restoration economy and its a demonstration of Montana ingenuity at its best.”
Former Park County WY Sheriff back during the Noranda-Crown Butte  debates , and now a Park County Commissioner , and a pragmatic Republican conservative, Bill Brewer said of Schweitzer’s restoraton economy “ He’s just jealous of Wyoming  and sticking it to us”. An armchair professor of geopolitics sitting in his office at the Miner’s Saloon in Cooke City might expound on that .  Consider it an ingenious and restorative  ‘gotcha’ by the Schweitzer administration for Wyoming not putting enough water in the Big Horn River in recent years to support Montana’s other gold industry— bluewater fly fishing—  or putting too much salty water into the Powder River flowing into Montana from Wyoming’s coalbed methane fields, or other petty statesmen’s quibbles. But we digress…

At a public information meeting in Cooke City on June 8 to discuss the project , Montana DEQ spearhead Tom Henderson, PhD. kept emphasizing the point  that even though the original McLaren reclamation plan c. mid-2008 was  designed to leave ALL the tailings on site in a newly built lined repository, engineers were mighty uncomfortable with the slim chance a major seismic event  or Biblical-class  deluge might possibly  rupture the repository and re-create the Soda Butte acidification scenario all over again . “US Geologic Survey people provided some disturbing data.  We are right up against the design limits for the seismic threshhold ,” Henderson kept driving at. The DEQ engineering solution was to haul away enough of the McLaren tailings — a minimum of  13 percent , but more would be desireable  —to better buttress  the new repository . When finished six years from now it should be able to withstand a big earthquake.  It’s not hard to see where  Montana  officials are coming from here. The memory of August 17 , 1959 at Hebgen Lake a hundred miles west of the McLaren is burned into Montana’s frontal lobes. A magnitude 7.2 quake rolled through the Madison Valley just before midnight, rearranging the mountain topography  dramatically , and there was significant loss of life and property. That grace does not disallow  skepticism, however.

Oh by the way, was it mentioned Montana actually makes  money hauling away the McLaren ‘excess’  to that smelter 318 miles away—if gold stays at $ 1200 an ounce, that is ?
Wyoming political powerhouse , State  Representative Pat Childers (R- Cody) is “all over”  the McLaren haul plan since the trucks will be grinding gears through his House district. He has his own wry thoughts on seismicity being the Montana DEQ’s principal engineering driver , to wit:  “ If they have a magnitude 7 earthquake in Cooke City,  a sloshing tailings site will be the least of their worries. “   Childers, a  former government affairs liaison for  Marathon Oil’s  regional office in Cody , and a pillar of the local Wise Use Movement back in the late 80’s and 90’s , is like  many coming late to the McLaren debutante ball. Shaker and mover  Childers  is now fully engaged , all the way to the Wyoming Governor’s office. Other northwest Wyoming politicos are getting up to speed as well. Childers  remains highly skeptical about Montana DEQ doing the bulk  haulout strictly to take the engineering and seismic  high ground, and not instead to make some money for a cash strapped state. It’s the old metaphor of the cart and the horse. (Ore cart and mule; same same. ) Which of the two is in front ?
The Wyoming Legislature meets this coming winter , a few months before haul season.

For those of you keeping score at home, the  baseline 6  year McLaren reclamation project is funded with a total of $ 24 million in cyclical grants from the Denver regional Office of Surface Mining through its Abandoned Mine Lands fund . Federal AML fees are collected nationwide at all manner of minesites but  principally the big coal mines , then plowed back into cleaning up old  minesites nationwide.  Wyoming pays way more into AML than it can ever hope for in  rebates , so much so that  a  Cody public-private consortium snared  a million dollars in AML funds five years ago to landscape an old sand and gravel pit that probably produced only a few tens of thousands of dollars of aggregate in its day ;  a nice bone tossed back. This atypical but definitely creative use of AML funds sculpted  a fine new hillside park adjacent to its public Rec Center and the Public Library-college outreach complex.
However, the typical work of AML  funds is less glitzy more gritty. The American West is littered with tens of thousands of old polluting hardrock mines that were forsaken . The McLaren is one of the more egregious examples since it is literally a few yards out the back door of Cooke City businesses on the east side of Shakedown Street, buttressing Soda Butte Creek which traces its base.  From the centerline of US 212 on Cooke’s main drag , you can throw a rock over the top of the outdoor cappuccino tables and hit the McLaren. For all the resort town’s rustic charms , don’t drink  from that orange creek or play in it.


Soda Butte Creek is bright orange from acid mine drainage, and it's right out the back door of businesses and lodging establishments on the east side of Cooke City's main drag. The creek is the city limit; the McLaren pit abuts it.

For this  gift , thank the  General Mining Act of 1872,  signed into law by Ulysses S. Grant two months after he signed the act  creating  Yellowstone Park. The 1872 Mining Act  is still the law of the land today, despite repeated attempts in Congress to reform it . Which is why the McLaren millsite has despoiled  Soda Butte Creek continually since  ~1929. Newer state and federal  environmental protection laws  have largely annulled the 1872 General Mining Act’s  awful environmental loophole for any new mining developments , but Grandfather’s old adits and pits still lurk . Too many old hardrock mines cost far more to clean up than the net worth of the precious metal they extracted. That is almost certainly the case with the McLaren. The  $ 21 million in AML funds   to reclaim and repose it is equivalent to a quarter of the value of all the gold that left Cooke City since 1870.


Work on the McLaren reclamation began in early June. Excavations immediately turned up some fossils of Cooke City mining legacy, such as these old timbers and iron skeletons

The addition to the project  of hauling the ~60,000 tons of  “excess”  tailings  is supposed  be self-funding.   Piggybacking this 13 percent paydirt  on top of the tailings stabilization was entirely Montana DEQ Director Richard Opper’s call.  He apparently added the offsite  hauling  in summer of  2008 when gold was selling for $ 975 an ounce.  Two months later, it was back down to $ 725 an ounce in the aftershocks of the September 15 major earthquake on  Wall Street   . By late February of ‘09 , gold had reversed its fall and climbed above the $ 1000 per ounce threshold , after the  Big Bank rescue plans  and economic stimulus funds  were ramping up .  There remains  the  suspicion that the holistics of this McLaren project are using the federal AML funds as a first stage booster to propel the state’s gold payload to orbit , or Planet Helena.
In a real sense, this is really two projects now with a fuzzy  boundary between them: the Base Mclaren project as bid, plus  Alternative 2 adding the offsite schlep. Opper is having to fend off allegations that  Montana DEQ is in the gold business to make money , given the relative gift of the McLaren site and gold selling at $ 1262 per ounce as of this writing. Opper wrote Childers that he “ would be thrilled if the revenues from the sale of the gold covered…the haul costs” He goes on to say “ at current prices, gold sales would come close to covering those  additional costs. At $ 1000 per ounce, we would lose $ 16 per ton of material we haul to Golden Sunlight “ , this from the guy who was quoted by his own agency PR desk saying  the McLaren plan was “good as gold”.
It appears from the minutiae of Bid Schedules that it costs about $ 8 – 9.00 per ton unit cost to move the tailings around at the site , engineering on the fly  but leaving them all on site . However, those materials  excavated and hauled to Whitehall escalate the unit cost by eightfold , to  somewhere hear  $ 69.00 per ton. At the stated concentration of old gold in the McLaren leavings of 1/10th ounce per ton, that’s $ 126 per ton gross. The smelter takes a 10 percent contractural refining fee,  $ 12.60 , which leaves a raw net of $ 113.40 in net  gold per ton. Debiting the contractor fee of $ 69.00  puts a positive yield  of $ 44.00 per ton…somewhere. Opper’s e-mail to Childers cited ” additional project costs” as  negating profitability, but a careful sifting of the highly detailed Mclaren plans and bid schedules does not reveal anything of those additonal costs. Not to your correspondent’s eyes, anyway.
The current Chairman of the Park County WY Commission , Jill Shockley-Siggins of rural Cody , was on the same board back in the early 90’s for the Noranda debates  and has a speaking role in the 2010 remake of “Groundhog Day II : Going for the Gold”. To her mind, “ this reclamation is mining” . Siggins grouses that she’s happy that federal funds make it such a deal for Montana DEQ to do this.  In the same breath she complains that the federal BLM who sold Park County the property for its landfill won’t allow the County to sell away the perfectly good bentonite currently being excavated there for the landfill improvement project. “ The same BLM won’t let us to sell our own bentonite to the plant in Lovell (WY)  that wants it , will come get it, and will keep local people employed. They say we  have to stockpile the stuff, cover it with dirt, and grow grass on it .“  Ah, the nuances of modern minerals management  and State-Federal intercourse.

Opper et al may be genuinely concerned about losing a few dollars a ton if the price of gold starts to drop or even tank, which wouldn’t be the first time by a damsite. His name is all over the paperwork as the responsible Montana person… the Chief Operating Officer of Schweitzer Gold Recovery and Restoration Inc who signed off on it all ,  if you are of a cynical nature. But Wyoming has its premium  value road to protect , in times of shrinking state budgets and skyrocketing costs of materials like  roadmix , asphalt , and fuel. It’s getting downright pricey to fix roads of late. Even so , much of the value of  the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway cannot be quantified or expressed in dollar values at all. Ever try to get a receipt for selling a ‘ million dollar view’?  What is the worth of  an emotional epiphany when a  flatlander experiences the rapture of near infinite vistas from the Chief Joe overlook for the first time ?
How do you put a price on being the 23rd car in line behind a big truck grinding up Dead Indian Hill at 18 mph , where  there is an unbroken double  yellow  stripe from the bottom of the mountain to the top…nearly 8 miles of “No Passing” ?

Gate admission at Yellowstone…$ 20.00
Burgers  and beverages for the family in Cooke City…  $ 37.00
Being a half hour late for the Cody Nite Rodeo because you were stuck in gridlock truck traffic out in the boondocks … Priceless.


Windshield vista of a tandem belly dump heavy truck on the Chief Joe in June of this year. This is the approximate configuration of heavy haulers planned for the McLaren schlep.

Since the Chief Joe is a public highway and interstate commerce clauses supersede state law, there’s  next to nothing Wy-DOT can do to shake down the trucks of Montana DEQ , unless and until actual road damage occurs or tangible public safety situations arise. Wyoming and especially Wy-DOT can and maybe should take the high ground by ignoring the payload  the trucks will be carrying. It  doesn’t matter if the McLaren belly dumps are loaded with scrap iron ,  chicken feathers , or gold-bearing rock. What does matter is the weight of those trucks, the trip numbers , adherence to the rules of the road, and the moving dynamic of the hauling schedule. Ninety thousand pounds of truck pushing on asphalt softened  by hot July sun on a  hairpin curve is one  , for instance.
Your correspondent spent some time with an industrial contractor and heavy hauler in Cody to learn more about this project  from the trucking side . Roger Koontz, longtime owner and manager of Harris Trucking , an industrial construction , materials, and  trucking firm was born and raised in Cody and knows both the Chief Joe road and the mechanics of his  industry well. When asked what he thought about the job of trucking  the McLaren mine waste loads out over the Chief Joe , said without blinking “ that’s a contract  I’d like to  have. It’s a good road…but those trucks will tear it up.”
The prime contractor for the McLaren reclamation project and hauling is Knife River,  an engineering and construction conglomerate headquartered in Bismarck N.D. and a division of Montana Dakota Utilities Resources, Inc. with field operations in major western cities, including Billings and Casper. By all accounts, Knife River is an excellent choice for the job. This narrative casts no shade on Knife River. A better contractor for the tasks at hand could not easily or affordably be  utilized. ( Knife River  also does paving and highway work, hint hint.)
Wy-DOT’s options for managing the Wyoming component  of the McLaren project are according to  Shelby Carlson limited to lowering  speed limit and reducing the weight of the trucks.  But that’s a Catch -22 . It  would  result in more truckloads  moving that much slower in a tourism corridor that may be populated by impatient drivers , or drivers not experienced in the nuances of mountain driving . Knife River will  responsible for weighing their loads, and truck scales will be installed at the McLaren. The trucks dispatched can expect to be closely monitored by the Wyoming Highway Patrol , who can accurately weigh  truck wheels with portable blanket scales carried in the trunks of their cars.  All of this is basically S.O.P.  , only more of it.  Carlson also plans to send tech crews to the Chief Joe next spring to fully assess the condition of the road , test the pavement using a variety of crafts including sensor trucks, to derive an engineering “ snapshot” of its condition .  She said Wy-DOT has already  identified some specific areas of concern out there along the mileposts. The Wy-DOT Supervisor who dispatches the crews from the Cody office is retiring at the end of the June  and no replacement has been named, so raw field intel from the Wy-DOT work crews was not available in the vaccuum.
What Wy-DOT  cannot do is charge a toll, collect a “ Haul Tax” or a “ Freight Fee” , or invade Montana. Heavy haul contractors  like Harris Trucking and Knife River  will be the first to tell you the various fees for permits of oversize overweight loads—even if forthcoming—don’t come anywhere near the restitution cost for road damage. Local published court dockets in Park County aren’t exactly brimming with opulent fines for DOT trucker violations, and those miniscule amount of fines cannot be plowed back to the road repair budget of the highway segment the  violations were written up in  anyway . The costs of any inordinate repairs to the Chief Joseph are in thrall to the Wyoming state budget allocations and federal funding, which in recent years has been as much as $ 250 million under where Wy-DOT expected it to be. ( Del McOmie quoted in Casper Star Tribune , late 2005)
Here’s an astonishing statistic from a National Academy of Sciences study: a semi truck and trailer of legal weight , 80,000 lbs. GVW in this case,   has more impact on the road surface than 9600 passenger cars. That’s not a typo. One Semi equals Nine Thousand Six Hundred Passenger Cars in road damage.


One semi truck does more damage to the Chief Joseph roadbed than 9600 passenger cars. The Montana DEQ McLaren project would send between 1500 and 3600 heavy trucks out over the Chief Joe from Cooke City. Those same trucks would make return trips, so double that number, roughly.

Wyoming collects the second lowest Fuel Tax of any state at 14 cents per gallon. Only Alaska’s fuel tax is lower, at 8 cents.  But even an increase of ten more cents per gallon to match surrounding states would only bring in maybe $ 45 million to Wy-DOT’s coffers. A dark secret of the highway maintenance industry is how much less Fuel Tax  revenue is actually being collected these days as cars and  trucks get more fuel efficient and drive further  on less gasoline… the Prius Effect.
One-shot federal stimulus funds aside, every state in the Union is seeing alarming  shortfalls in its state and federal  highway maintenance funding  , while prices for materials keep climbing steeply.  It hits Wyoming harder than most states to have those federal highway funds curtailed, since the state has so few residents yet so many miles of highways to accomodate them. Wyoming is so spacious you have to drive all day to get anywhere, it seems.  More and more maintenance  funding is being deferred. Wy-DOT  managers cannot be happy to see a surge in heavy truck usage on state highways like the Chief Joseph . Areas of intense mineral energy development like the the Powder River Basin  and southwest Wyoming are really ripping through  Wy-DOT program budgets. Opinions about this Perfect Storm of debilitating  highway funding factors at Wy-DOT  are  being deferred, too, at least publically.
As world-class gorgeous  as it is , terraced   into the Absaroka mountains of Sunlight Basin, Crandall, and the rim of  Wyoming’s Wild and Scenic Clarks Fork River gorge at the foot of the stupendous granite of the Beartooths, the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway  is after all open for business and intertstate commerce every day of the year.  Weather permitting. Those million dollar views that travelers swoon over do not contribute directly to Wy-DOT’s  shrinking bottom line. The effects on the Chief Joe’s  repair and maintenance regimen  from McLaren are unknowns going forward . Wyoming roads are empirically designed for 50-year lifespans. The upper stretch of the Chief Joe is 46 years old.
It’s always Groundhog Day at the highway department.


A more pedestrian user group of Chief Joseph Highway patrons, somewhat closer to the original intent of the highway design specs...

So there’s no doubt this McLaren project presents a much different face to Wyoming than it does to Montana. Both states would agree that cleaning up the old polluting mill site and restoring Soda Butte Creek is a worthy goal.  Wyoming is already uncomplainingly supporting the McLaren project  because  the necessary heavy equipment and materiale for the site work is being  trucked  over the Chief Joe, business as usual, right alongside local cement trucks and piggybacked trackhoes, weekly food service semis from Billings , and the increasingly rare logging trucks . The McLaren project  began moving dirt for site prep in early June .  Wy-DOT’s traffic counter system  says 185,000 vehicles per year drive the Chief Joe, and as many as 14,000 of those are commercial trucks weighing more than 26,000lbs. GVW. ( That seems like an inordinant number of existing trucks to this writer , however ). Nearly all the use of the Chief Joe occurs between late May and early November, the same interval when the McLaren hauling will necessarily happen. What’s unusual is  the addition of thousands of heavy trucks in one ‘spike’ .  It’s several  orders of magnitude above  the norm for the Chief Joe.
The bottom line is it  all comes down to the price of gold. Honestly. If anyone tells you he knows what gold will be selling for next June, call him a fool to his face  and  walk away. One gold broker can make a solid  case for gold selling higher and higher for the forseeable. The infamous spike in gold prices in January 1980  when gold briefly hit $ 850 U.S. per ounce was due as much as anything to events in Iran  , the Middle East  and Afghanistan  being invaded  the month before , plus  global economic uncertainty  and currency churn  ( sound familiar ? ). Following that speculative reasoning , the spike price of gold in today’s dollars should already be way north of $ 2500.00 adjusted for inflation.
A second equally learned gold trader will tell you that as the same U.S. Dollar regains its strength in the global economy , as it appears to be doing now after the Bush-Cheney  administration purposely let the dollar go weak abroad to bolster American manufacturing exports,  the price of gold will necessarily fall. Gold and the Dollar are on common  teeter totter. As one goes up, the other goes down . That broker’s reasoning  would tell you gold might just as easily be back around $ 750 an ounce this time next year.  Gold is as gold does. It’s price is determined by speculation , a flawed human trait.


The Inevitable PowerPoint Presentation. Tom Henderson of Montana DEQ at the Cooke City Fire Hall, June 8. About forty people attended this informational meeting , mostly industry and agency reps . It was conducted a week after the project began after eight years of planning. Only three folks from Wyoming seemed to be there. The public input process for the McLaren project was scant.

In the same vein, your correspondent  attended the June 8 public information gathering at the Cooke City Fire Hall attended by 40 people , mostly a powwow Round Dance of  agency and industry folks associated with the project. The question was lobbed to  drumbeater Tom Henderson , PhD,  the Montana DEQ  mine reclamation specialist who’s overseeing the McLaren project , but was actually intended for the Montana cabal present .
Facetiously , but not  without a sharp point: “  From Wyoming’s point of view , it would be a whole lot better if you kept all your waste rock on site instead of trucking so much of it out over the Chief Joseph.  That way if we went to war with Brazil or somebody 150 years from now and really needed some gold, we’d know exactly where to go get  it. Could you possibly consider creating a Strategic Gold Reserve instead ? “
That sucked most of the air out of the room.


The issues surrounding the use Wyoming's Chief Joseph Scenic Highway as a Montana haul road are far from being as black and white as these two equines... shades of grey, tints of gold.

There is one fundamental difference between Montana and Wyoming in their modern culture and politics grubstakes . Montana government  allows and even encourages gambling.  A casino on every corner is the norm these days in The Treasure State.  Wyoming  government does not gamble.  The Treasure State  DEQ is converting  Governor Brian  Schweitzer’s  purported “ restoration economy and Montana ingenuity at its best “ into a long shot that says gold will stay higher , not lower. In fact, they’re betting it will.

Fine. But it is this correspondent’s considered opinion after weighing all these arguments pro and con  as carefully as the backroom broker assays dearly departed Grandmas’s gold dental work so cavalierly salvaged as “ used gold “ for “ recycling”, it appears it would be in the best interests of both Montana and Wyoming to leave all of the McLaren spoil on site, not just 87 percent of it. The Smart Money , because in the end it’s not wise to bet against either History or Mother Nature.


I have  five  overriding questions about this project  that I wasn’t able to resolve. The Montana Governor’s office sorta gagged me after I asked a few too many questions of Montana DEQ officials.

1.  Since this plan was developed by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality , where s the Environmental Assessment or similar  analysis  regarding the hauling , or even the project itself ?  The engineering is great . What about the environmentals and socioeconomics?

2. The main McLaren cleanup is being done with federal Office of Surface Mining  grants ( Abandoned Mine Lands money ). The additional hauling and smelting appears to be a distinctly State-run auxilliary project . What do the Feds think about that   ?

3.  Would Montana DEQ be willing to have its books openly audited for this project , coming and going , in the interests of transparency ? ( The requisite Follow The Money question  )

4. Why in an old mining region covering 24 square miles could Montana DEQ not find a few acres of suitable land to move  the desired amount of McLaren tailings to build a safer repository at Soda Butte Creek ?  Montana DEQ apparently acquired SOME land adjacent to the McLaren for expanded storage  from the Gallatin Forest, via the US Department of Justice.  But not enough to do all the offsite storage of mine waste ?  Was this because the Forest Service doesn’t play well with others ( very likely ) , even though THEY would benefit from a cleaner Soda Butte Creek more than Yellowstone Park downstream ?  Did Montana DEQ press hard enough to acquire  a few acres of federal property  for a second small lined repository nearby , one that could be landscaped and reintegrated into the forest environment  (e.g. like an Appalachian mountaintop mine) ? Will it require federal top-down legislation to force the Gallatin National Forest  and/or the Trust for Public Lands who recently acquired the balance of the old mining claims in the New World to revisit offering a few acres of suitable nearby ground for a small secondary repository away from the creek for that ” excess”  mine waste ?

5. Did Gold Fever cloud  Montana DEQ’s judgment ? The multinational mineral giant Noranda took its leave  from an estimated $ 650 million in gold it was developing in the New World mining district , after being reimbursed  by the federal government for its upfront costs. The same feds are willing to pay to reclaim the orphaned McLaren millsite for Montana separately through existing mine reclamation programs , but the state of Montana still can’t take its eyes off the prospect of $ 24 million in shiny yellow metal ?

The price of Gold is entirely a human abstract concept. It has no correlation in the natural world. The object of the McLaren mine millsite cleanup is to remove the groundwater from under the tailings, lower the ph value of the acidic mine waste rock material , and restructure it all by geoengineering into a newer safer repository capable of withstanding the forces of nature, pretty much right where it sits now, complementing the mine reclamation of the larger New World sites up the mountain. That’s it. No more , no less .

Yet the Montana DEQ has been blinded by the glare of gold, apparently.  The McLaren site has legally not been ” withdrawn” from mineral development like the Noranda-Crown Butte New World sites.  The Mclaren is still subject to the Old Rules, for now . At $ 1200 or more per ounce of gold, Montana DEQ  is salivating at the prospect of hauling a fair amount of it off to a smelter for the money it will make, without any thought aforehand about Wyoming incurring expense and degradation of its own resources  ( until your correspondent fired a few shots across the bow, anyway . ) .  At some street value near $ 1000 ounce , there’s no profit in secondhand gold to be made , so all the  mine waste stays there  across from the  Cooke City cemetary and those thousands of heavy trucks don’t caravan across Wyoming’s prettiest highway, the Shakedown Road . The era of hardrock precious metal mining will be over for Cooke City, finally . Which is the  ultimate, unstated goal here. We finally get to lock the gate and close the books . The mountains begin to heal.

So I guess my  overarching  question is: What exactly are the ethics of a state agency “Going for the Gold” when they don’t really have to haul any  of it away at all  ?


Local legend in Cooke City says that when Chief Joseph led his people through the early Cooke City mining ventures in 1877 with the US 7th Cavalry pursuing him, the Nex Perce burned the mills and made off with the gold and silver bullion. It's probably not true, but it's a good story nevertheless. The History of the Cooke City mining ventures does not favor Montana DEQ's haul plan...lack of affordable transportation sucked all the profit out of the New World Mining District for 80 years. The two dimensional brazed metal sculpture shown here on the crest of the Chief Joseph highway at the overlook has some symbology beyond its superficiality. The gold coin is at the approximate location of Cooke city

The great Lakota Sioux tribal shaman Black Elk said  it over a hundred years ago and his words are not tarnished . Gold is “ the yellow metal that makes white men crazy “.


Researched and written in June 2010.  This essay was originally written for WyoFile, the online media site for Wyoming issues, but at 7200 words came in about five times over the word limit assigned. I’m publishing  the full  version here  with photos.  Even this version is 3,000  words short of a load.  It’s still rough , but informative nevertheless. I seem  to have lost the ability to write essay length journalistic articles. Damn computers….

On a personal note, my earliest memories of the Great Outdoors are from  the Chief Joseph region of northwest Wyoming…Bald Ridge, Sunlight, Crandall, Clarks Fork.   Our family homestead cabin  was near the summit of Dead Indian Hill, now the Northwest College field station , and we spent countless hours at Everett and Juanita Wallace’s  Few Acres Ranch up near the junction of the Chief Joe and Beartooth highways,  which seemed like a home away from home.  The world of natural history and mountain living in  my youth was the Golden Triangle between Cody , Cooke City, and Red Lodge Montana.          – dewey

© 2010 Dewey Vanderhoff . All Rights Reserved


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