HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Federal prosecutors asked a judge on Tuesday to prevent two miners and their armed supporters from blocking access to public land and threatening government officials over a dispute with the U.S. Forest Service in western Montana.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Helena also seeks a declaration that miners George Kornec and Phil Nappo illegally opened a road, cut down trees, built a garage and denied the public the right to access the White Hope mine near Lincoln.
Prosecutors and the Forest Service want U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell to declare the miners are acting illegally because they don't have surface land rights to their mining claims. Prosecutors also want an order requiring the miners to pay to fix the damage to public land and for the miners and their armed supporters to stop interfering with public access.
The road leading to the mining claim belongs to the Forest Service and is open to the public for non-motorized use, the lawsuit said. Members of the public may not interfere with mining operations, but they may access the land and the road, it said.
"Currently the gate is closed with no trespassing signs posted and the public and Forest Service are being refused entry by armed persons," the lawsuit said.
The legal action has the potential to escalate what has been a peaceful, if uneasy, standoff between government officials and more than 20 armed members of constitutionalist groups who showed up in Lincoln, Montana, last week. The members of the Oath Keepers, 3% of Idaho and the Pacific Patriot Network said the miners had requested their presence as a buffer against the Forest Service.
The dispute centers on whether Kornec and Nappo's mining claim comes with surface land rights. The armed groups claimed in a statement last week the miners' have surface rights because Kornec's family held the claim before rules took effect in 1955 that granted those rights to the Forest Service.
"Claims are not public property," the groups said in the statement posted on the Oath Keepers' website.
Oath Keepers is a national group best known as supporters of the Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy during a 2014 dispute with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The Idaho group gets its name from the 3 percent of Americans who fought in the Revolutionary War.
Chris McIntire, a spokesman for 3% of Idaho and the groups in Lincoln, did not have immediate comment when informed about the lawsuit.
Kornec does not have a telephone at the mining claim, and phone numbers listed for Nappo are out of service. W. John Tietz, a Helena attorney who has previously represented the miners in their dispute, said they were no longer his clients and had no comment.
The Forest Service contends that Kornec did not file the proper paperwork for his mine in 1986, resulting in an agency ruling that his claims were abandoned. Kornec had filed the paperwork a day late, but he did not appeal the ruling and instead filed a new claim.
The issue of surface rights reverted to the 1955 rules under that new claim, according to the lawsuit.
The miners' operational plan, which would allow them to construct buildings or roads or cut timber, expired in 2014, according to the Forest Service. Agency officials sent the miners notice in August 2014, ordering them to remove the garage, pay for the timber they cut and write a plan to reclaim the unauthorized road.
Negotiations ensued, and Kornec and Nappo filed a new operational plan in February. But the plan was too broad, covering a 10-year period that would require an environmental analysis, and agency officials told the miners to scale it back.
The last meeting was held on July 30, and prosecutors said the miners agreed to submit a new operational plan and to remove explosives that were being stored onsite.
The next week, armed protesters began to show up. In the statement posted to the Oath Keepers' website, they said they were invited by the miners and called for reinforcements to protect the miners from any illegal Forest Service activity.