HELENA – Two Montana miners filed a countersuit seeking a jury trial to determine their rights to claims near Lincoln after the U.S. government sued them for failing to comply with federal regulations.
George Kornec and Philip Nappo asked U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell Wednesday to block the U.S. Forest Service from what they called harassment and interference that has prevented them from earning an income from the three mining claims in Helena National Forest.
"The Forest Service has shown by actions and words that it has no intention of allowing Kornec and Nappo to peacefully and exclusively enjoy their ownership of the mining claims at issue, and to enjoy the benefits of revenue from their mining operations," the men's attorney, Joshua Campbell, said in the filing.
The U.S. Attorney's Office filed its lawsuit in August after the miners enlisted armed protesters to guard the mine and the road leading to it. The protesters said they wanted to ensure the government interference stopped and they declared victory when the August lawsuit was filed.
The government's lawsuit asks a judge to declare the men acted illegally in building a garage, cutting down trees, opening a road and locking a gate near the mine.
The miners say an 1872 law grants them surface and subsurface rights to the land where their mine is located.
The Forest Service, however, says it has the surface rights because the 1872 law does not apply to the claims.
Korne's relatives homesteaded the property in 1924, according to the countersuit. He and Nappo partnered in 2007 to form a company called Intermountain Mining and Refining, and they pay a fee each year to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for the claims.
The men say they have exclusive rights to the land but were harassed by a Forest Service worker who damaged their property, demanded a cleanup of the area and changes to their operations.
When reclamation began on the nearby Mike Horse Mine, with toxic material being shipped out on the shared road, Kornec and Nappo had to request permission to travel on the road. That restriction amounted to interfering with their operations, the countersuit said.
Last year, the Forest Service cited the men for violations that included cutting firewood, construction of a building and erosion. The men met with the agency officials, but "it appeared the Forest Service had no intention of conducting a meaningful discussion or of resolving the issues," Campbell argued.
Lovell has ordered the lawyers for the two sides to meet to discuss the possibility of a settlement and develop a plan to manage the case before a Nov. 12 court hearing.