Nevada’s Old Mines: Abandoned, But Not Forgotten

Aug 8, 2017

The Bureau of Land Management has a team of employees who find and block off abandoned mines in the state of Nevada. KUNR reporter Natalie Van Hoozer tagged along for a rural road trip to find out more. 

John Callan is the Abandoned Mine Lands Program Lead for Nevada. He drives to remote locations all over the state to inventory old mines. As part of the process, Callan and his team evaluate these sites for hazards, cultural value and whether they support wildlife. 

John Callan, Abandoned Mine Lands Program Lead for the state of Nevada.
Credit Aishwarya Krishnamoorthy

On this particular northern Nevada trip, Callan drove out past the town of Lovelock to an area called Seven Troughs.  

The Tunnel Camp mining site.
Credit Aishwarya Krishnamoorthy

“People have visions of the Lost Dutchman's Mine or whatever's in their head, you know,” Callan says. “They’re going to come around the corner and there’s going to be an ore cart full of gold. Well, that's not the case, they'd never leave gold behind. But it's that part of the American Mystique, Western Mystique, having mines, the danger of the unknown, it appeals to people.” 

Callan says people enter mines to explore and are hurt or killed by hazards like collapsing wood structures, toxic gasses and mine shafts with severe drops, sometimes as deep as 600 feet.  

According to this 2013 study by the BLM, Nevada has at least 10,648 physical safety hazard sites, which is the highest of any state. Callan says that site estimate is low, as much of the state has yet to be inventoried.  

Tailings, or refuse, from the mining process at a site called Rosebud.
Credit Aishwarya Krishnamoorthy

Some people are also injured by mines without actively seeking them out.

“You never know, you could have a fatality or serious injury, especially with dirt bikes or ATVs,” Callan says. 

Equipment John Callan takes out into the field.
Credit Aishwarya Krishnamoorthy

He explains that ATVs riders will see the dirt piles surrounding a mine shaft and attempt to ride over them for entertainment, without realizing there is a hole on the other side. 

A mine shaft estimated to be at least 100 feet deep.
Credit Aishwarya Krishnamoorthy

The risk of injury or even death to those recreating, exploring or hunting in rural Nevada is a large incentive for the BLM to close off or fill in these mining features.

While part of this closure includes filling in some mines completely, many old mines are used by wildlife.  

“These are key features on the landscape to support bat habitat,” Callan explains.  

He says the bats use these spaces, especially adits (the horizontal opening into a mine) as night roosts during the summer, hibernation areas in the winter and maternity roosts.

To allow bats to use the mines the BLM installs bate gates, metal grates designed to allow bats to fly in and out of the mine while preventing humans from entering. Other animals, like tortoises, sometimes use the mines as well. 

An installed bat gate at the Rosebud abandoned mine.
Credit Aishwarya Krishnamoorthy

Callan admits that he does have to process a lot of paperwork, create budgets and attend meetings for his job, but he says it is worth it to be able to appreciate the history, plants and wildlife of Nevada’s public lands.

Wild burrows alongside the road.
Credit Aishwarya Krishnamoorthy

“The reward is the ability to be able to come out here and enjoy these open spaces, like the silence that you hear right now,” he says. 

Credit Aishwarya Krishnamoorthy

In the future, Callan would like to see more funding allocated to the Abandoned Mine Lands Project to be able to increase the amount of mines inventoried.

Natalie Van Hoozer is a senior at the Reynolds School of Journalism and photographer Aishwarya Krishnamoorthy is a graduate of the University of Rochester.