Wilderness Bonanza May Be Lost -- Heirs Tire Of Waiting For Congress To Buy Snohomish Co. Mine

A former mining claim in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest is reluctantly being put up for sale, along with a prospector's broken dreams and his daughters' childhood memories.

The family that owns the Bonanza Queen Mine in Snohomish County is growing tired of waiting for the government to buy it. Conservationists are worried that the 300 acres of forested land could be lost to logging or development.

"It's a beautiful piece of land right smack-dab in the middle of a national forest, and it would just be a shame not to have that," said Leslie Brown, spokeswoman for the Nature Conservancy of Washington, a nonprofit conservation group.

The Bonanza Queen property sits just north of Silverton on the northeastern slope of Long Mountain, south of Darrington.

It contains a rainbow of trees - silver firs, yellow cedar, red alder - and is home to endangered spotted owls as well as streams to salmon-spawning grounds, Brown said.

The property is owned by the descendants of the late prospector Byron Auker. His daughter Carolyn Auker wants Congress to buy the property for use as public forest land. But other relatives would rather not wait to see if Congress acts.

Carolyn's sister, Lynet Auker Keihl, said she and the other two family members are pushing to sell the property soon.

"Carolyn has a very strong background as an environmentalist," Keihl said. "In her heart of hearts she very much wants it to go to the Forest Service. But we do have to be realistic, and the time has come to sell the property."

Carolyn Auker has tried for three years to get the government to buy the land. Its fate now hinges on the willingness of Congress to provide money in the 2000 federal budget.

Byron Auker purchased the property with a partner in 1950. He was interested in mining copper. Although he never struck it rich, the family retained the land - purchasing his partner's share in 1972 - for sentimental reasons.

"Prospecting was a love of my father's," Carolyn Auker said. "We spent a lot of time there."

She is now struggling to keep the land from falling into the hands of loggers or resort developers.

The Clinton administration recommended that money be designated for the purchase, and the Senate agreed, approving $1.5 million. But the House of Representatives has not earmarked any money. Work on the final congressional budget is expected to be completed next month.

Snohomish County Executive Bob Drewel has written Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., chairman of the Senate Interior Appropriations subcommittee, urging him to ensure money is included for the land.

"This area plays a vital role in protecting salmon habitat," Drewel said. "It's just one of these opportunities that ought not to be lost."

Kurt Beckett, an aide to Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, ranking Democrat on the House Interior Appropriations subcommittee, said Dicks would work to keep money for the purchase in the final budget worked out in a House-Senate conference committee.

The National Audubon Society is also lobbying for the land purchase.

Auker said that if Congress does not approve money this year, the property will be put on the market.

"I don't have total control over the property," she said. "It's not mine to do with what I want, and there's other family members who have other needs."

Yesterday, an appraiser was assessing the market value of the land. A Web site advertising the land sums up what's at stake: "For Sale by Owner. 300 beautiful acres of tall timber, lovely stream, spectacular views, and complete privacy."

Eli Sanders' phone message number is 206-748-5815.