The Golden Lottery: AZ gold rush 2011
CAMP VERDE - In the world of latter-day prospectors, Dan Patch is a legend.
A Quartzite native, Patch made a fortune after assuming ownership of 63 claims along the northeast tip of the Moon Mountains, not far from the eastern boundary of Yavapai County.
The claims area, which sat over a detached fault buried beneath alluvial sediments, had gone unrecognized as a mineral district until Charles Ellis identified it as a copper prospect in 1968.
Ellis, owner of Southwest Silver Company, worked the claims for seven years before leasing the property to a mineral exploration company in 1975.
The company drilled a single test hole -- then walked away.
In 1980, Ellis' company drilled six holes, the results of which were never revealed. Then, while roofing his house, Ellis fell and broke his neck. Unable to work the claims, Patch assumed ownership.
A few months later, Patch leased the property to Cyprus-Amoco. Instead of copper, an ambitious drilling program revealed a significant deposit of microscopic gold. By 1987 Cyprus-Amorco had developed the claims into an open pit mine.
Over the next six years the company withdrew 510,000 ounces of gold from Patch's Copperstone claims, before declaring the load financially exhausted.
Then in 2002, American Bonanza Gold Corporation leased the mine from Patch's heirs. American Bonanza estimates that an additional 300,000 to 1.2 million ounces of microscopic gold remain to be extracted.
The mine is expected to reopen next month.
In a world where gold prices have flirted with $2,000 an ounce, where the price of silver rose tenfold in less than seven years, and other minerals are reaching all time highs, the number of Cyprus Amocos and American Bonanzas scouring the landscape, as well as Dan Patch wannabes, is growing.
The total number of registered mineral claims statewide is 44,000, up from 25,600 in 2004, according to Nyal Niemuth, Phoenix branch chief for the Arizona Geological Survey
"It's significant that the number of claims has remained high, given that numerous uranium claims on the Colorado Plateau have been dropped in anticipation of a the area being withdrawn by the Secretary of the Interior," says Niemuth.
It is uncertain how many claim holders are targeting gold, but records show that most of the historic gold-bearing claims remain claimed.
And when it comes to gold, Yavapai County has produced more than any other county.
The 3.4 million ounces extracted from county mines amount to just over 20 percent of the 16 million ounces extracted statewide since 1863.
Is it a rush?
So the question is, has the high price of gold brought a new rush of prospectors to Yavapai County's famous gold fields?
The answer is, it all depends.
"Most of what we see in Yavapai County is narrow veins of gold, likely to be gold associated with sulfides that might have deleterious elements, like arsenic, that smelters and others don't like to process. It's not the model people are looking for right at the get-go," Niemuth says.
"For the big mining companies, the sediment hosted bulk deposits, like those found at Copperstone, are what is being sought. The gold is in tiny grains, can be open pit mined and is easily extracted.
"There are some underground-vein ore mining examples, but in general it takes a lot of drilling to locate the veins. Today that's a big risk, and even when you locate them its very expensive to mine underground."
Nevertheless, says Niemuth, companies are interested in Yavapai County's famed mineral deposits -- gold and otherwise.
Q-Gold Ltd, a Canadian mining company, is currently working gold and silver claims in the historic Tiger Mining District outside of Crown King.
Last month, Eurasian Minerals of Canada and Vale S.A. of Brazil signed an agreement to explore for copper and molybdenum in Copper Basin, south of Crown King.
Redstone Resources has plans to reopen the Zonia Mine (Copper) southeast of Kirkland Junction. It closed in the mid-1970s, when copper fell to 50 cents an ounce.
And south of Camp Verde, Regal Resources continues to explore the Squaw Peak Mine for copper, molybdenum and silver.
But the big mining companies are not the only ones taking a renewed interest. Over the last year more and more individuals have begun their own quest for gold.
In January 2010 Nolan Akin decided to start a chapter of the Gold Prospectors Association of America in the Prescott area. Six people showed up at the first meeting.
Last month he opened The Gold Shop, a gold prospecting equipment company in Prescott Valley, after the list of active members climbed over 100 and another 500 signed on to his email list.
At around $50 a gram, it doesn't take much gold to generate some excitement.
"Every trip we go out on, we are finding something. It can range from some microscopic gold you can barely see in the pan to pickers and even nuggets. Some of the claims the club owns are quite productive," Akin says.
Gold clubs, which own their own claims, have seen dramatic increases in membership, because they offer advantages to the weekend prospector that going-it-along doesn't.
Not only do they offer an opportunity to root through known deposits, they help ensure the novice doesn't wander on to someone else's claim.
"It's a pretty hefty fine to be caught on someone else's claim," Akin warns.
According to the GPAA website, 41 new chapters have formed across the country just this year.
But not everyone is a joiner. Some still possess the same streak of independence that has kept Arizona among the top one or two states for non-fuel mineral production.
For those hearty soles the Arizona Geological Survey has prepared a guide to take them step-by-step through the process, from filing a claim, to addressing the environmental process, to getting the permits, to starting to dig.
It is available on the AZGS Website, http://repository.azgs.az.gov. Search for "Arizona Mining Permitting Guide."
But keep one thing in mind, Niemuth warns: Dan Patch is a legend because he was the exception.
"I like to encourage people to get out on the landscape and prospect," Niemuth says, "but in some ways it's like playing the lottery. It's nice to fantasize that you are going to find a five-pound nugget, or you are going to find a prospect no one has walked over before.
"But the reality is, you had better have your beans, beer and gas covered first. The number of Dan Patches in this world is getting fewer and fewer."