Chicken-gate: the EPA army swoops down on Chicken, Alaska
Chicken has swelled to 17 residents this summer, counting the seasonal placer miners, latest in a lineage stretching back to the settlers of the town – originally intended to be named Ptarmigan, but who could spell that? – during the great Gold Rush of 1902.
The placers’ pursuits were disturbed without warning last month, when a phalanx of federal agencies swooped down on Chicken. As the Alaska Dispatch’s Sean Doogan tells it in his delightfully headlined, “Gold miners near Chicken cry foul over ‘heavy-handed’ EPA raids”
“Miners from the Chicken area — a gold mining town of just 7 full-time residents and dozens of seasonal miners off the Taylor Highway, between Tok and the Canadian border — said that… they were surprised by groups of four to eight armed officers, who swarmed onto their mining claims with little or no warning. The officers were armed and wearing body armor. They were part of the Alaska Environmental Crimes Task Force and were there to check for violations of section 404 of the Clean Water Act, according to several miners who were contacted by the group. Section 404 governs water discharges into rivers, streams, lakes and oceans.”
No word on whether drones were aloft — is there a command post deep underneath EPA’s Washington Headquarters at 1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, with GS-15s watching grainy night-vision video and toggling the fire control for Hellfire missiles? – but the field team, according to a federal EPA statement, consisted of “EPA, ADEC, USFWS, ADFG, BLM, Coast Guard, FBI, Alaska State Troopers, NOAA, & US Park Service.” That’s more federal acronyms than there are fulltime residents of Chicken. And yet there’s this from an EPA spokesman: “the federal Environmental Protection Agency did not deny that agents wore body armor and carried guns, but… it was not a ‘raid.’”
That comes as cold comfort to the placer miners on the receiving end of the non-raid. “These are mostly Mom and Pop mining operations, and most of the time just Pop, since the Mom will be back at the house minding the kids,” said one of the placer miners I talked to by telephone. “So you have agents jumping out from all different directions, all focused on one miner – it’s intimidating.” And a darn lucky thing that none of the pops or moms – most of them carrying sidearms in the Alaskan wild as insurance against bears – didn’t respond to the federal shock and awe by drawing their own weapons, with who knows what outcome.
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Pressed on the need for such a show of force, federal agencies told the Alaska Dispatch they deployed following reports that Chicken might be a hub for human trafficking or drug mules – no doubt bringing in heroin in Yukon Gold potato sacks. There are few things more heart-rending than human trafficking, but it’s tough to credit the EPA SWAT team’s claim that Chicken is a human trafficking hotbed. That’s a hard sell in a place small enough to list every resident’s name on the “Welcome to Chicken” sign.
Personally, I’d send the task force to check out nearby Boundary, Alaska, which lists its population as “about 6.” That sounds a little sketchy to me. I’ll rest easy when EPA can tell the nation whether that’s a hard 6, or whether it’s in fact 7, and if the extra person is trafficking in humans or drugs, or is a member of al-Qaeda. Anyway, that’s where the people of Chicken balked and put calls in to their elected representatives in Juneau and Washington, D.C. who will now be examining the matter. Stay tuned for Chicken-gate, about who knew what, when they knew it and who was in the EPA Situation Room watching the real-time Chicken feed.
If you’re like me, you’re wondering why the EPA would choose now to deploy its SWAT team and why at such a remote micro-mining outpost along the Canadian border? I did some Chicken scratching of my own, and the one thing that comes to mind is that the EPA raiders plucked Chicken out of the many mining towns in the Alaskan wild is because their Federal feathers were ruffled — by a lawsuit filed this spring by the State of Alaska. That’s when the State filed suit to take control of the region’s rights-of-way, ending decades of BLM hegemony – and, to hear the miners of Chicken tell it, a long war on their traditional way of panning gold. Because, as it turns out, just as all roads lead to Rome, every old trail in the State’s new case leads back to – that’s right – Chicken. What was life like for Chicken’s placers under the BLM? According to the federal filing:
“Examples of restrictions imposed by the BLM… include having to obtain and pay thousands of dollars for environmental assessments and permits before using state-owned rights-of-way; obtaining and posting bonds prior to using state-owned trails; erecting a gate on a trail to prevent use by the public; notifying the BLM at least five business days before using a trail and requiring a BLM employee to accompany the user on the first spring and summer move along the trail; and limiting travel to only a few trips per year.”
Think about that for a moment: A federal agency is using its authority to safeguard historic trails used by Gold Rush miners 100 years ago to access placer deposits from being tracked up by… gold miners in 2013 accessing their placer deposits. By that logic, as soon as BLM has driven the last miner from Chicken, the Federal Government will mount a major preservation effort of an authentic twenty-first-century Ghost Town. Is it possible that the EPA raid was just the Feds’ way of letting Chicken know who rules the roost?
Presumably, the miners have now returned to their placer deposits, without fear of federal special ops commandos springing out of the foliage. All is well in Chicken, AK — fireweed fields, burbling streams, and the endless Alaska sky overhead… and perhaps the odd EPA/NSA satellite.
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