Retreating glacier opens up new mine claims in Herbert Glacier

A blue glacier slumps over a rocky hillside, that mergens into a spruce forest
The gold claims are immediately behind Herbert Glacier, viewed from the banks of its eponymous river, on August 12, 2017. (Jacob Resneck / KTOO)

A retreating glacier is exposing virgin territory about 20 miles north of Juneau.

Mining claims around the Herbert Glacier has a Canadian prospecting company excited and environmentalists concerned.

Along the river bank, a bluish hue shines off the Herbert Glacier dominating the horizon. It’s near this wide spot in the Herbert River where mining claims begin.

Two decades ago this area was covered in ice.

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“It’s easier and cheaper I think to drill when you’re not sitting on top of a moving glacier, a calving glacier,” said Guy Archibald, staff scientist for Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, a self-styled mine watchdog.

“What it’s doing is that the glacial retreat is exposing fresh rock that hasn’t been seen by anybody and some of that rock contains mineralization that could be economical to dig up and mine.”

The U.S. Forest Service oversees drilling permits here. Aerial photos from past years confirm the glacier’s retreat.

“The glacier’s receded since the late 1990s on the order of about a quarter-mile or so,” Minerals Program Manager Matthew Reece said.

That’s created opportunity and interest in the past decade and this summer the Forest Service renewed permits for a new round of drilling.

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“It’s simply an exploration project,” Reece said. “Anything that would go further would require a significant amount of planning and environmental assessment.”

The drilling firm is Grande Portage Resources of Vancouver, B.C. It touts its Herbert Gold Project as “one of Alaska’s more promising prospects” in what it describes as an “underexplored” area rich in gold-quartz veins.

“We’ve been historically active in the area, drilling an exploration target north of Juneau called the Herbert Gold Project,” CEO Ian Klassen said.

The company’s reported drilling tests yielding about 60 grams of gold per metric ton at a depth of about 8 meters, which has sparked renewed interest.

“In the past we’ve only gone down about 600 feet,” Klassen said. “This year we’ll go a little bit deeper, down to almost testing 2,000 feet as well as testing the eastern extensions of three of the most prolific veins that we’ve tested to date.”

Developing a mine would require state and federal permits and would also be subject to local review. But Juneau’s local elected officials are considering eliminating that process.

Ian Klassen, CEO of Grande Portage Resources Ltd. during a July 14, 2017, visit to Juneau. (Jacob Resneck/KTOO)

Environmentalists are troubled.

“Changing the mining ordinance will affect the city’s ability to analyze and ask for additional protections on any potential Herbert Glacier mine,” Archibald said.

But with the state’s fiscal crisis threatening public sector jobs, pro-mining boosters argue that Juneau needs to get back to its roots as a mining town.

“Juneau has a reputation as an anti-mining town,” Jim Clark, former chief of staff for Gov. Frank Murkowski, said in May. He and a group of well-connected businessmen convinced a majority on the Juneau Assembly that the city’s mining law should be re-examined. “Part of fixing this ordinance is to repair that image statewide so that we appear to be open for business.”

Juneau’s mayor has since appointed a task force to look at the local mining ordinance; its recommendations are expected in November.

Meanwhile, Grande Portage has a crew of nine in Juneau. Its drillers rotate shifts as work continues 24/7.

“We expect that this drill season will lead to future drill seasons and as we add significantly through the assay lab results we’ll end up redoing our resource calculation,” Klassen said. “The larger a deposit we get, the more interest you’d get from the investment community and from your peers.”

The Canadian CEO’s optimism isn’t matched by environmentalists.

“I can’t predict what this mine is going to look like,” Archibald said. “But the trick is the mining company, because of everything unique about this area and the complexity, they can’t predict what impacts are gonna be 200 years from now or even 50 years from now.”

Core samples will indicate whether further exploration is economical. But the political and environmental considerations of restarting gold mining around the Herbert Glacier is another question entirely.

Jacob Resneck is CoastAlaska's regional news director in Juneau.

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