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Yakutat gold boom goes bust

The beach fish camp at Strawberry Point is one of the areas of Yakutat where mining claims were staked. Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News

The beach fish camp at Strawberry Point is one of the areas of Yakutat where mining claims were staked. Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News

An Oklahoma company’s plan to mine gold from a large area around Yakutat is dead and buried. But there’s still interest in smaller operations near the northern Southeast community.

Walk along the water at Yakutat’s Strawberry Point, and you’ll see a well-used fish camp. Miniature houses with windows and siding stand next to wall tents, Quonset huts and weather-damaged cabins.

There’s plenty of driftwood for fires, wildflowers for photos and seabirds for watching.

There’s also plenty of sand, sand one company claimed could bring Yakutat one hell of an economic boom.

“The preliminary sampling shows a potentially commercial deposit of gold and silver on the surface,” said Tim Cannon of Cross Timbers Forestry, in a 2009 interview. (Hear more of that story.)

The Yakutat forelands just east of the city. Gold claims were staked for similar areas. Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News

The Yakutat forelands just east of the city. Gold claims were staked for similar areas. Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News

His Oklahoma firm conducted field work for Geohedral LLC, which staked claims on about 60,000 acres around Yakutat. The area included beaches, upland dunes and a nearby mesa.

Geohedral said it found strong evidence of gold, silver, iron and titanium worth a king’s ransom – well, maybe Bill Gates or Warren Buffett’s ransom.

And then …

“It went from something like a $40-billion-dollar project to nothing practically overnight,” said Skip Ryman, manager of Yakutat’s Borough government.

“It had potential to get people really excited and stir up a lot of controversy. But the town held its own. It just said wait and see,” he said.

Conservation and Native groups raised environmental concerns.

Backers spread the news that assays – tests that determine mineral content – suggested there could be 35 million ounces of gold. That’s about a thousand tons.

Then came word of follow-up tests showing much less mineral content, not enough to be worth mining.

Yakutat municipal planner Bill Lucy says eventually, Geohedral gave up its mining claims.

“After some of the reports from (the state Department of Natural Resources) and the Forest Service mining permitting people expressing doubt, the company went away,” Lucy said.

A call to Geohedral’s Oklahoma City phone number was answered by Herb Mee Jr. He was president of The Beard Company, a major investor, when the claims were filed.

He declined to be interviewed. But he confirmed the Yakutat mining claims were not maintained and the effort is long over.

Meanwhile, court documents show The Beard Company filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy last fall. That usually leads to liquidation.

Yakutat’s Lucy says others remain interested in mining, but on a far, far smaller scale.

“Those are small mom-and-pop operations. A lot of its beach placer mining with a pan, after a storm, and they can get a pretty good amount of gold up there,” he said.

He says some dredge-mining permits propose operations at the Alsek River, to the east, and the White River, to the west. But nothing’s happened so far.

Lucy also staffs the fisheries advocacy group Yakutat Salmon Board.

He says an operation like Geohedral’s could harm fish and wildlife, as well as subsistence and commercial harvests. But small dredge mining could be done in a way that would not damage salmon habitat.

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