The Oath Keepers have shown up in the tiny western Montana town of Lincoln, answering a “call to action” issued earlier this month to protect the “constitutional rights” of a local mine owner in a dispute with the federal government.
“Pacific Patriot Network under the leadership of the Oath Keepers has set up a security mission to protect the White Hope Mine and related claims in Lewis & Clark County, MT,” the announcement read. “The immediate aim of this operation is to act as a buffer between the miners and any unlawful action by the United States Forest Service (USFS).”
That fight the Oath Keepers have promised has a familiar ring to it.
Just as the Oath Keepers and others claimed ahead of a protest and gathering of militiamen in nearby Medford, Ore., the Oath Keepers and III percenters claimed they were there to protect the “constitutional rights” of a local mine owner in a dispute with the Bureau of Land Management. Strangely, even as the matter was being adjudicated in the normal process for such disputes, the mine owners claimed their rights were being violated. They claimed they were at risk of being burned out of their mine.
In Oregon, BLM officials were unsure how to respond to the accusations of usurping the Constitution. Likewise, Forest Service officials in the regional Montana offices are searching for what might have summoned the Oath Keepers.
“These are a couple of guys who have been working this claim for a couple of decades,” David Smith, regional spokesman for the Forest Service, told Hatewatch. “They had an operating plan that expired last year, and we’ve been working with them to get a new one approved. And they also had a couple of compliance issues that we were working with them to resolve. … They were agreeable to our suggestions.”
Smith said the “call to action” came out of the blue.
“We’ve been in a relationship with them for a long time, and we wanted to make clear we wanted to work with them to get them up and running so they can exercise their rights to mine that claim in accordance with the law,” he said.
The Missoulian explained that the dispute dates back to previous paper transactions regarding the claim, including a change of jurisdiction from 1872 mining laws to a newer federal law passed in 1955. The mine owners claim they fall under the previous jurisdiction, in spite of previous court rulings.
”We are grandfathered from the 1874 mining laws and that means we're under state law,” mine owner George Kornec told reporters. “And this is what it’s all about, that's why I’m standing up.”
At the center of the dispute is a new building erected on the site, and how to get their plan into compliance with federal laws with the building included.
“We have never said or planned to remove that structure that they built,” Smith told Hatewatch. “What we have said is, how do you justify having that structure within your operating plan? We have not ever said that we would come in and remove the structure itself.”
Another concern that officials have involves a Department of Environmental Quality mine-reclamation project next door to the White Hope Mine, and trucks and other traffic coming to and from that site are using the roadways heavily. “Our concern right now is we don’t want people coming in back and forth on that road and interfering with the contractors using it. Safety is a huge concern there. There are 40 people employed by that construction project,” Smith said.
The ruling on whether it was handled under 1872 or 1955 law came from the courts, Smith said. “We just have the obligation to enforce the law according to that ruling.”
Smith added that the case is not involved in litigation or adjudication at any level, so there’s no forthcoming “day in court” that might signal an end to the armed protest at the mine, as it did in Oregon.
“Obviously, we’re not in a confrontation,” he said. “It’s not the people who are there I’m worried about – it’s the ones from the fringe who want to join in. And I’m worried about the safety of the people up there. We don’t want to see things escalate, especially over an issue that we have been working all along in a very cooperative way to resolve.”