CAVE JUNCTION — Three years ago, Dave Rutan opened a gold mining retreat inside the Kalmiopsis Wilderness of southern Oregon, bringing in helicopters, gas-powered dredges and paying customers.
He did so without the permission county authorities say he needed.
Now he wants to commercially dredge miles of the Chetco, one of Oregon's purest rivers. He plans to helicopter in four-man crews to seek gold from the equivalent of nearly 50 truckloads of river gravel each season.
Some environmentalists are aghast.
"A lot of things he's proposing are inconsistent with the wilderness," said Barbara Ullian, a Grants Pass nature photographer with a passion for protecting the Kalmiopsis.
An Ashland environmental group, KS Wild, promised to fight Rutan's mining plans "every step of the way."
Rutan, 44, a trim, neatly barbered real estate developer from Washington state, says historic mining law won't let Ullian or others interfere.
The clash over one of Oregon's most remote territories is playing out in a half-dozen government offices. It has sharpened debate over when wilderness is truly wilderness, a sensitive topic in a state with a growing inventory of protected pristine places.
Rutan formed Chetco River Mining and Explorations in 2007, buying federal mining claims from a retired Portland gardener. The claims on the Chetco start six miles inside Kalmiopsis. They end downriver 24 miles, toward Brookings. It is here that Rutan plans commercial-scale mining.
He acquired Camp Emily, 45 acres of private ground whittled out of the national forest, also in 2007. He installed three cabins and a dining hall to handle up to 20 people, including customers coming to mine for gold in the adjacent Little Chetco River. Now, Rutan is peddling ownership in the camp.
The structure of those sales is unclear. Rutan initially advertised 12 shares at $65,000. He said he limited the number to avoid triggering more stringent state regulation of time shares. Recently, he started promoting an additional 200 "ownership interests" starting at $1,500, but said what a buyer gets for the price is "privileged information."
Rutan granted several interviews to The Oregonian and provided additional information in writing. Subsequently asked to confirm certain statements during fact-checking for this article, Rutan responded that "12 of the 13 are false, misleading, misrepresentations or out of context." Rutan identified what he said were factual errors in only one statement.
In a remnant of the Old West, prospectors can stake an exclusive claim to mine on certain federal land. The gold or other minerals they find are theirs, but the land stays in public ownership.
A handful of such claims were in place when Congress formed the Kalmiopsis Wilderness in 1964.
The congressional action allowed miners to keep working active claims. The action also restricted miners' ability later on to patent their claims, buying public land for as little as $2.50 an acre.
In 1988, southern Oregon racehorse breeder Carl Alleman turned his claims at Camp Emily into private property. He spent thousands on attorneys, geologists and surveyors and paid the government $150 for the 45 acres.
Alleman was a weekend miner who liked the remoteness. His effort to keep road access across national forest and through the wilderness triggered a years-long battle with federal agencies and environmentalists. He lost and was left to get in cross country on foot or by horse.
Frustrated, Alleman agreed in 2002 to sell the property back to the government for $605,000. It was the only private ground inside the Kalmiopsis, and the Forest Service had been under pressure from a range of interests, including Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., to get it back.
Alleman signed the paperwork June 4, 2002. Five weeks later, as the contract awaited signature by the Forest Service, the Biscuit fire erupted.
The monster wildfire burned through the Kalmiopsis, scorching Alleman's land, including a cabin. The Forest Service subsequently offered one-fourth the price it had been willing to pay Alleman, prompting him to reject the deal with what he said was colorful language.
Alleman was ready to listen when Rutan, a man he'd encountered in mining circles, wanted to buy.
Rutan told The Oregonian he has been a gold mining enthusiast most of his life. A native of Washington, he said he worked in high-tech before turning to real estate development. He said he sold some holdings at the peak and decided to buy Camp Emily.
Before he got the deed, Rutan approached Curry County officials with plans to replace the burned cabin with a substantially larger two-story lodge. County officials told Rutan that he couldn't put up anything larger than the original cabin without getting additional zoning approval. The county advised Rutan that without that approval, he could replace only the original cabin, and that would require a building permit.
Rutan eventually decided to helicopter in three guest cabins and a dining hall instead.
He didn't tell the county about this plan. Rutan said he read the county's zoning for his land and concluded he needed no permits for his buildings.
The county thought otherwise.
Officials told him in September 2007 to stop all work. They said he violated the zoning law and contended that he didn't have necessary building and sanitation permits.
Still, the helicopters flew, ferrying in customers. His Web site features picture after picture of smiling guests holding pans of gold flakes.
Although Rutan promoted "comfort and modern living" at Camp Emily, he said it was rudimentary. The "modern living" meant guests got a mattress, he said. Otherwise, they ate on paper plates and used an outhouse. Sinks in the cabins weren't plumbed.
That troubled Curry County health officials, who advised Rutan he needed water and sewer services for a commercial operation.
The county issued Rutan a "notice of violation," saying that sewage had been improperly handled at the camp and such violations "are a health hazard that must be corrected." Rutan then applied to have the county evaluate his site for sewage treatment and disputed the county's conclusions about his operation. The application is pending.
Last summer, county planner Candy Cronberger gathered government officials to figure their next step regarding Rutan's operation. In an e-mail last June, Cronberger said it was time for the county to thwart Rutan's "ongoing nose thumbing at everyone." She wrote that he continued to ignore orders about his "illegal camp."
Rutan, who denies his camp is illegal, told county officials they had not followed due process by issuing the order without visiting the camp.
He initially declined requests he fly county officials in for an inspection, telling the county that Camp Emily had only one helicopter landing spot. "The helipad will be occupied with my own aircraft. There are no other areas on the private property to safely land a helicopter," he wrote last summer.
Rutan told The Oregonian that a second landing was installed in 2007 for hauling and emergencies. Asked to explain his statement to the county, Rutan said he wouldn't recommend anyone land there "without experience and onsite clearance."
The inaccessibility has stymied county officials, who say they can't take more legal action against Rutan until they inspect the camp. Rutan's Web site photos aren't enough, they say. Rutan since has offered to fly in one county official — to inspect a sewer project he wants to build — but the trip he proposed never took place.
As officials fumed about what to do, Rutan moved to ramp up mining at Camp Emily. His customers looked for gold by using a gas-powered dredge to vacuum the bottom of the Little Chetco River. They panned finer material for gold.
Rutan wanted to deploy larger equipment to rip into gravel benches beside the stream.
Environmentalists opposed his request to open a road through the wilderness to move in an excavator and large mining gear called a trommel. Forest Service officials rejected Rutan's request, and he now says he'll fly in the equipment.
Environmentalists worry about what damage dredging will do to the Little Chetco River.
But they are far more troubled by what he's proposing along the main Chetco.
For more than 20 years, Floyd Higgins worked Gold No. 11, his claim far up the Chetco in the Kalmiopsis. A helicopter would drop off his dredge in summer, and Higgins made a challenging two-day hike in to his camp to spend the season looking for gold.
Higgins, a retired Portland city gardener, said he pulled gold out of the Chetco's gravel every year, using his portable dredge. He worked alone or with one other partner. He broke his leg one summer, used duct tape to splint it with a stick and kept on working, he said.
"If you haven't got any guts, you've got no reason to be in there," Higgins said.
He bristles at the notion that his mining damaged the river or its fish. "The fish and the river both benefited from my work," Higgins said.
He said winter's high waters flushed clear any evidence of his work in the river. He said his dredging stirred up feed for hungry fish and created new spawning beds. He said he doesn't think his dredge sucked up a single fish.
After he turned 80, Higgins retired from mining and in 2007 sold Gold No. 11 and seven adjacent claims to Rutan.
Rutan subsequently tried to essentially rent his claims to California prospectors.
"Our objective is to get a working relationship of several dredging companies," Rutan wrote to one in an e-mail the spring of 2008. "There is plenty of miles to work and lots of gold."
In May 2008, Rutan proposed that his company, Chetco River Mining, engage in a far larger operation than Higgins had undertaken. In a revised proposal submitted to the Forest Service last month, Chetco River Mining proposed a landing pad for helicopters for at least 20 trips a season. The proposed operation would vacuum up about a dump truck load of river bottom each day crews are in the field.
Tim Haderly, Rutan's partner in Chetco River Mining, said the unhappiness about their plans is no surprise.
"People's perception of a wilderness is untouched. Unfortunately, the claims were established before the area was withdrawn from mining," Haderly said.
Some environmentalists, including fish biologists, say dredging the Chetco would damage a pristine environment ideal for endangered fish. It makes no sense, in their view, to create temporary gravel bars that seem to be perfect spawning grounds only to have winter high water rip out the bars — taking along buried fish eggs.
Aside from scientific issues, fans of the Kalmiopsis can't imagine why dredging and commercial operations should be allowed. Wilderness has value just for its wildness, they say.
"It's a quality you feel in your skin, you feel in your bones," said Ullian, the Grants Pass photographer who has tramped the Kalmiopsis. "You have to have places like that."
Forest Service officials say they are caught between the tough language of the 1872 mining law and the more recent wilderness law. One remains in force to allow mining on federal land, the other to protect untouched places.
Alan VanDiver, Forest Service district ranger in Gold Beach, said he plans to hike into the claims this summer before judging whether to allow Rutan to go ahead.
He said the agency's decision may turn on whether there is proof that dredging harms fish. From experience on the gold-bearing Klamath River in California, VanDiver said, he hasn't seen any research on the effects of river dredging that he finds definitive. Once the agency assesses the impact on fish and streams, he said, Rutan may be able to mine his Chetco claims.
More recently, Rutan has invited environmentalists to end mining on at least one of his claims.
He's offered to "retire" a linear foot of Gold No. 9 for every $100 donated to a charitable trust he controls. His Web site said nearly all the money would be paid out to southern Oregon charities.
While he forges ahead on the Chetco project, he is also pressing to sell Camp Emily instead of mining it himself despite what he said is its rich gold reserves. He said he has more fun showing people how to mine than getting at the gold himself.
"I'm not in this for the money," Rutan said.