Armed militias celebrate victory in Montana mine stand-off with federal govt

Members of the Oath Keepers © Jim Urquhart
The Oath Keepers and other militia groups are celebrating a victory after a conflict over surface rights for a mine in Montana was taken to court. The militias were brought in to protect mine owners from federal interference.

"We will continue to remain vigilant and on site and make sure what we achieved yesterday is upheld," spokesman for the militias Chris McIntire told AP on Wednesday, a day after the US Forest Service sought a court ruling over the contested rights.

The White Hope mine is located under the Helena National Forest near the town of Lincoln. The right for surface rights over the mine claim is contested between owners George Kornec and Phil Nappo and the Forestry Service.

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The mine owners say the surface is rightfully theirs, because the claim was held before new rules took effect in 1955. The US government says that Kornec failed to provide proper paperwork for the mine in 1986, which led to it being registered as abandoned. The 1955 rules are thus now applicable, which in turn means that the mining company has to provide a detailed operational plan for the mine and that the surface over their property is now public land.

Fearing that the authorities would demolish a garage built over the mine by force, Kornec and Nappo called in armed militias to protect it. Last week came the Oath Keepers, a group best known for their participation in last year’s standoff at Bandy Ranch and also showing up in Ferguson – both during the last year’s disturbances and this month for the anniversary protest.

The US Forestry Service “has no legal standing or precedence for their recent actions, but has taken it upon themselves to require unnecessary permits, enacted stalling techniques, made threats of arson, and strong-arm tactics to coax a generation of older miners to submit to unlawful authority, preventing them from working their rightful mining claim,” the group said in a statement.

The “Operation Big Sky” also involves militia groups Three Percent of Idaho and the Pacific Patriot Network. Together, some 20 fighters came to Lincoln and at the gates leading to the mines, although the militias would not disclose the exact number of their men citing “operational security.”

The lawsuit filed by the Forestry Service with the District Court in Helena seeks a ruling to remove the armed guards and allow access to the Helena National Forest to its personnel and the public. The service owns a road open for non-motorized travel, which the militias closed off. The prosecutors also want the mine owners to pay damages for cutting down trees, building a garage and opening a road for mining operations.

The conflict in Montana was resolved peacefully, with Oath Keepers choosing not to wear their usual camouflage and carry automatic weapons when showing up in Lincoln, a town of 1,100 residents.

“They weren’t trying to alarm the residents of Lincoln,” Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton said Saturday after the militias declared their intentions. “Their goal is to see the miners get their day in court.”