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Staking a claim: Promise of opals lures would-be miners
Opal hunter Willie Rios, of Boulder, Colo., stakes out his claim in the western Rattlesnake Hills, northeast of Sweetwater Station, Wyo., on March 5. Opal is considered the most colorful of all gemstones, and the best opal gems are more valuable than diamond, fetching up to $10,000 a carat, according to the International Colored Gemstone Association. Associated Press A prospector’s wooden claim stake is one of many scattered on the barren landscape of Fremont County in south central Wyoming. Associated Press A 'common' opal that weighs about 34 pounds, pulled from a newly discovered opal deposit recently by Wyoming state geologists. Associated Press

Associated Press

SWEETWATER STATION - The scattershot stakes of different sizes and colors stand out among the sagebrush with nothing more than a lonely, sauntering wild horse as far as the eye can see.

Over here is a four-by-four stake spray painted pink and yellow on the top with rocks painted the same colors at its base. "Giddy Up and Go 3-4-05" is written in black marker on one side. Bird droppings mark the flat top of the post.

Over there is another stake, bearing a clipboard bound with duct tape; written on the board: "2 claims Total Size 200 yds x 500 yds."

Across a dirt-and-gravel road is a two-by-four stake, with "Discovery Cor 23" written on two sides. A plastic freezer bag is attached near the top with duct tape. Inside is a folded document that describes the claim's dimensions.

The stakes are monuments to a 21st-century rush of prospectors. They descended on this remote, hilly area in south-central Wyoming last March with grand hopes and dreams of striking it rich by finding a precious gemstone called opal.

The rush caught federal officials off guard, resulted in a bureaucratic paper jam that has delayed actual mining and prompted authorities to take measures to protect an endangered flower from being trampled.

Opal is considered the most colorful of all gemstones, and the best opal gems are more valuable than diamonds, fetching as much as $10,000 a carat, according to the International Colored Gemstone Association.

The Wyoming opal site is a 3-square-mile area about 100 miles west of Casper. It was initially discovered by a local rock hound who told the State Geological Survey, which undertook a more extensive survey and found large deposits of opal. Most of the opal is "common opal," which isn't worth much. But geologists found some of the highly valued "precious opal," leading them to conclude that there was more to be found.

Fremont County Clerk Julie Freese said her office received 1,048 mining claims over a nearly two-month period after the State Geological Survey publicly announced the exact location of the opal deposit. Each claim cost $135 in fees.

"I thought it would be more; it didn't seem too bad a price," said Jim Montgomery, of Cheyenne, who along with a partner staked out two claims - named "Mother Lode" and "Lucky Strike" - for a total of $270.

"We went up and kind of picked around a little bit, but didn't find anything too exciting yet," Montgomery said.

Unlike the gold rushes of Old West lore, these new prospectors aren't allowed to begin digging until their paperwork is properly filed with the state and the federal Bureau of Land Management, which manages most of the land where the opal is located and which must record all the claims.

The Wyoming BLM office in Cheyenne has received only 50 of the 1,048 claims. Even among those 50, most lack the proper legal description to be accepted, further delaying the digging.

"They'll all be getting letters asking them to correct the legal description," said Pam Stiles, a land law examiner with the BLM.

There may be more delays for other prospectors trying to pick their way through complicated federal and state mining rules. For instance, claims of 10 acres or more require additional paperwork, and prospectors who plan to use heavy equipment to dig must obtain a special permit from the state Department of Environmental Quality.

In addition, every Sept. 1, in order to keep the claim, each prospector will either have to pay the BLM another $100 or document $100 worth of improvements made to their claim.

While the paperwork has put a clamp on actual digging for now, the rush to the 1,680-acre area, where the only known resource of value previously was oil and gas, certainly wasn't lacking for adventure, surprise and some comic relief.

Even though most of the opal is on land administered by the BLM, the agency was caught off guard because the State Geological Survey kept the exact location of the deposit secret until a public announcement March 4.

"It would have been helpful to have more time to get prepared to respond to the intensive level of activity out there," said Jack Kelly, manager of the BLM office in Lander, who had to call in help from other BLM offices around the state to handle the onslaught.

"The bottom line is it impacted our staff, who were totally unprepared for the workload," BLM spokeswoman Cindy Wertz said.

W. Dan Hausel, a state geologist in charge of metals and precious stones, said the state office didn't want to chance a leak that would have given some prospectors an unfair head start and didn't expect environmental problems because an oil field is located in the same area.

However, the BLM was forced to restrict vehicles on 360 acres in the area because some prospectors were driving off roads and endangering the desert yellowhead, a sunflowerlike plant listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Some deep wheel ruts were gouged into the ground.

"It's going to have to heal over time," Kelly said.

Hausel said he found the initial interest and rush both surprisingly strong and amusing. The Geological Survey received hundreds of phone calls in the weeks after announcing the deposit, he said.

"It was quite a rush, and 99 percent of the people I talked to had no idea what they were doing, so it was pretty entertaining," Hausel said.

Some people ended up miles away from the opal because "they didn't know how to read a map," he said. Many had no clue about mining regulations and how to stake a claim.

Montgomery said the process was a "little confusing at first."

Kelly said some prospectors had erected signs warning people to keep off their claim. That's illegal because the mining claim only prevents people from grabbing minerals, not from accessing the land for other legal purposes, such as hunting.

Others were well prepared.

Hausel recalled that some prospectors, acting on early news reports, had positioned colleagues with satellite telephones in the general area of the deposit so they could get a jump on others when the exact location was announced.

Kelly said he expects prospectors to start digging on their claims this summer and into the fall before winter forces a halt.

For prospectors like Montgomery, who described himself as a casual rock collector, the digging can't start soon enough.

"We kind of can't wait to get up there," he said.

Opal finds

ENCHANTING GEM: The American Gem Society describes fine opal as a "enchanting gem" through which some believe "the mysteries of love can be exchanged." The Gemological Institute of America says opal is the "world's most popular phenomenal gem" that some cultures credit with "supernatural origins and powers."

ALL ABOUT COLOR: The more color the opal shows - what geologists call "play of color," or rainbow effect - the more valuable it is.

SOURCES: The largest known source of opal is in Australia. Other deposits exist in Brazil, Mexico and parts of Africa. In the United States, some opal is found in Nevada, Idaho and Oregon.

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