Summit County miner faces prison after threatening Forest Service, operating illegally
A man with longtime mining claims in Summit County was recently convicted in Grand Junction of threatening a Forest Service officer and operating on public lands without the required authorization.
Walter Joe Blanc, 72, lives in Grand Junction and visits Summit in the summers for weeks at a time to work on his claims near the McCullough Gulch Trailhead near Quandary Mountain south of Breckenridge.
Blanc was convicted Feb. 13 of 10 counts that include interfering with the duties of a Forest Service employee, destruction of public property, building an unapproved bridge and maintaining an unauthorized residence at his unpatented mining claim.
His lawyer, Aspen-based Gary Wright, called Blanc’s conflict with the Forest Service a symptom of a larger issue in Colorado in which public land managers and other officials have prioritized recreation over mining, ranching and farming.
In her report about the July 25, 2014, incident, local Forest Service law enforcement officer Jill Wick wrote that Blanc shouted curse words at her and her coworker Paul Semmer and grabbed his pistol several times.
“It kind of sounds like Joe doesn’t like the Forest Service,” Summit County Sheriff John Minor said.
The sheriff’s office wasn’t involved with this incident because federal authorities handled it, Minor said.
Wick also wrote that Blanc threatened to shoot the Forest Service vehicle’s tires if the employees drove to his mine.
“Maybe he’s overreacted a bit to the vandalism and damage to his property that has occurred,” Wright said. “I can say with certainty that Joe would dispute that he’s ever pulled a gun on anyone.”
CONFIRMED GOLD DEPOSITS
Friends of the Dillon Ranger District Executive Director Mike Connolly was hiking by and overheard some of the altercation.
“He was just complaining about the government in general,” Connolly said, describing Blanc’s rant.
Blanc’s mining claims were first developed in the 1800s, Wright said, and the land, known as Last Dollar Mine, has confirmed gold deposits. Blanc has worked there on and off for years with the intention of someday mining the gold.
Since Blanc’s relatives filed required paperwork for the claims in the 1930s, management of national forest lands has radically changed, Wright said, and miners are required to operate under approved plans.
He said Blanc has tried to come into compliance with the Forest Service over the years, while recreational use of the neighboring McCullough Gulch Trail has expanded exponentially.
Those different uses of the public land are sometimes incompatible, Wright said.
He said Blanc has no prior record, and the only report the Summit County Sheriff’s Office could provide involving Blanc was from an incident Aug. 2, 2014.
That day, two members of the volunteer organization Summit County Rescue Group said Blanc threatened them when they neared his mining claims en route to a rescue mission.
Charles Pitman, spokesman for the group, said the volunteer rescuers were going to assist an 18-year-old hiker who had “cliffed out,” or gotten stranded on steep terrain. They wore uniform jackets that might have looked like law enforcement clothing, Pitman said.
The two rescuers told a sheriff’s office deputy that Blanc removed a handgun from his pocket and pointed it at them, which Blanc denied.
Pitman called the experience unnerving for the rescuers.
The sheriff’s office issued Blanc a court summons for prohibited use of weapons, which records at the district attorney’s office indicate was canceled.
NO PAST PROBLEMS
Though Blanc has become increasingly protective of his property, Pitman said, the rescue group hasn’t had problems with him in the past.
On that day last August, he said, “as soon as he (Blanc) found out we were search and rescue he was good with it.”
Pitman stressed the importance of easy access to the area for those responding to the increasingly more common emergencies there every year.
“We really need to do the best we can to have a good working relationship with all the people up there, especially with Joe,” Pitman said.
Friends of the Dillon Ranger District, the Forest Service’s nonprofit partner in Summit County, changed one of its major trail work plans last summer after some employees encountered Blanc and felt uncomfortable about supervising a three-week Rocky Mountain Youth Corp trail project there.
“He’s right next to the trail,” Connolly said, and those who visit McCullough Gulch can see his no trespassing signs with skulls and crossbones.
Blanc was not arrested after the July incident with the Forest Service employees.
After appearing in court, he was given a bond condition that prohibits him from any national forest lands, said Jeff Dorschner, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Colorado, which prosecuted the case on behalf of the Forest Service.
Dorschner said Blanc is requesting permission to go to his mining claims and remove materials that caused damage to vegetation and a creek and led to criminal convictions.
Blanc is scheduled to be sentenced by Judge Gordon Gallagher in Grand Junction on May 11, and faces up to five years in prison.
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