Summit County miner banned from national forest
A man with longtime mining claims in Summit County was sentenced Monday, May 11, in Grand Junction after he was convicted of threatening a U.S. Forest Service officer and unauthorized use of public land south of Breckenridge.
Judge Gordon P. Gallagher sentenced Walter Joe Blanc, 72, to two years of probation, during which he is banned from any national forest lands unless he signs and files a site cleanup and remediation plan with the Forest Service.
Also during his two-year probation, Blanc cannot possess a firearm, must participate in a mental health treatment program and must take psychiatric medications as prescribed.
He was ordered to pay $250 a month for the next 10 years, for a total of $30,000, in restitution to the Forest Service for damages he caused on national forest lands.
Gallagher said that amount is less than a quarter of the full cost of the damages estimated by the government, which he doesn’t expect Blanc to be able to pay given his age, health and limited income.
For the last couple decades, Blanc has lived most of the year in Grand Junction and has spent summers working on his claims near the McCullough Gulch Trailhead east of Quandary Peak.
He was convicted in February 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.
Each count carried a maximum sentence of six months imprisonment, and Gallagher ordered a six-month prison sentence to be completed if Blanc doesn’t comply with the terms of his probation.
“You have a right to free speech,” Gallagher told Blanc, “but it never includes confronting others with a firearm. It never includes acting the way you did.”
In her report about a 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.
Wick also wrote that Blanc threatened to shoot the Forest Service vehicle’s tires if the employees drove to his mine.
Blanc maintains that he has never threatened anyone with a gun and said he doesn’t condone violence.
“I regret talking to Paul Semmer and Jill Wick on that day in the manner which occurred, but to me it was just a serious conversation,” Blanc told Gallagher. “In the near future I’ll refrain from any actions that might be detrimental to me being there, and I mean that wholeheartedly.”
Besides a few traffic violations, Blanc has no criminal record. Three of his children accompanied Blanc to the hearing Monday.
As for the land use convictions, Blanc told Gallagher his grandfather, father and uncles who first starting working at the Last Dollar Mines around 1930 taught him to prioritize Mother Nature above all else.
“I am not now or have ever been an environmentalist. However, I am always a very strict caretaker of the land and the earth, not only McCullough Gulch but wherever I go,” he said. “I love being in McCullough Gulch. It’s my only home. I have this deep passion for McCullough Gulch and its environment.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Heldmyer said Blanc has clear anger toward Forest Service employees and argued for a sentence that would keep them safe.
“I don’t believe for a minute that Mr. Blanc regrets any of his behavior,” she said. “I am very concerned about any future encounters between Mr. Blanc and the U.S. Forest Service.”
As an example, she described a recent incident in which Blanc used a power tool to destroy a buck-and-rail fence the Forest Service built to prevent the public from accessing his mining claims as part of a previous bond condition.
“He took it upon himself to take a chainsaw to it,” she said. “It shows Mr. Blanc’s complete contempt for authority.”
She said since Blanc’s trial ended three months ago, the Forest Service worked to negotiate a plan of operations with Blanc so that he could continue mining legally. However, Blanc rejected versions of the plan, she said, and the Forest Service won’t make any further concessions.
Blanc said after the hearing that he spoke with someone with the California-based Minerals and Mining Advisory Council and wants to appeal the decision.
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