Arizona’s two abandoned-mine inspectors face daunting task

WICKENBURG – Jerry Tyra started working underground in 1960, drilling ore samples to help mine companies figure out whether to develop a mine site.

Since 2007, the 75-year-old has been doing a different kind of exploration: scouring the state for the thousands of abandoned mines some of his former employers may have left scattered throughout the Arizona desert. When he finds one, Tyra uses wire and metal posts to fence it off, placing warning signs on the wire.

“I get my map programs out, and I just pick a township,” he said, standing near the edge of a 900-foot-deep mine shaft east of Wickenburg. “I take every little trail they’ve got. If I don’t find anything, I’ll go to the next one.”

Tyra is one of only two abandoned-mine supervisors in Arizona. The pair face an uphill battle trying to identify the estimated 100,000 abandoned mines in the state and render them safe, or at least safer.

The Arizona State Mine Inspector’s Office has repeatedly asked for funds to hire more inspectors and permanently close more mines, but the state’s abandoned-mine program hasn’t seen a significant budget increase in more than a decade. State officials fear it’s just a matter of time before somebody else gets injured or dies at one of the thousands of abandoned hard rock mines the state hasn’t mapped and secured.

“There’s two of us who are doing it,” Tyra said. “That’s a lot of territory to cover.”

Arizona has about 14,500 square miles of land, and abandoned-mine supervisors have the legal authority to search all of it, from federally managed public land to private property.

Tyra and fellow supervisor Tom White close between 400 and 500 abandoned mines every year.

“He goes that way. I go this way,” Tyra said, smoking a cigarette as he leaned against the creaking, rusted metal of an old mining rig designed to pull minecarts up from a silver mine. “So we’re all by ourselves. It ain’t safe.”

A lack of funding shuttered the Arizona State Mine Inspector’s abandoned-mine program in the 1990s. Since the program was restarted in 2007, when the office hired Tyra and White, the two have found roughly 5,600 mines.

But over the 11 years they’ve been searching – often in opposite ends of the state – they have put only a small dent in the problem.

Abandoned mine supervisor Jerry Tyra is one of two people tasked by the state with finding and securing Arizona’s estimated 100,000 abandoned mines. (Photo by Nicole Neri/Cronkite News)

100,000 abandoned mines: ‘That’s just a guesstimate’

“They’re scattered all over the state,” Tyra said of the abandoned mines. “And we have no idea how many there are.”

Each mine site may have several entrances and exits, called adits, along with vertical shafts to supply miners with air. Each mine complex can have dozens of these “features” spread out over acres of often remote land.

States classify abandoned-mine features differently, but Arizona likely has the highest number of open shafts and adits in the country. According to the Bureau of Land Management, there are an estimated 500,000 abandoned mines in the U.S. The Arizona Mine Inspector’s Office estimates the state has about 100,000 of them.

But there could be more lurking below the ground in the Copper State. Numbers in Arizona come from a formula based on mining claims.

“Since statehood (in 1912), there has been a million mining claims staked,” Tyra said. “If you figure 10 percent of them have anything done at all, that’s 100,000 right there. That’s just a guesstimate.”

The number doesn’t take into account Arizona’s 3,000-year history of mining – Native Americans may have mined the land for minerals as early as 1000 B.C., and Europeans have been digging ore in the desert since the 1600s.

Tyra estimates that he and White have closed up about 5,000 mines. “I don’t keep track of that stuff,” he said.

The Arizona State Mine Inspector’s Office employs 14 people, and most either work at desks or inspect active mines in the state.

Remnants of an abandoned mine about 40 minutes west of Kingman, Arizona are left unclosed and open to the public with only a damaged sign as a warning. There are an estimated 100,000 abandoned mines in Arizona. (Photo by Celisse Jones / Cronkite News)

Stretching resources: Funds must pay for gas, fencing

In Wickenburg, Tyra pulled his straw cowboy hat down over his eyes as the sun rose. His mud-splattered 2012 Ford F-150 has bounced over 150,000 miles of unpaved roads, and he said the truck will have to last him for several more years.

The abandoned-mine program has received $194,700 in state funds every year for most of the past decade. That pays for the fuel and materials Tyra and White use, plus their salaries. The mine inspector’s office says this isn’t nearly enough.

“We’re stretching our resources just as far as we possibly can,” said Tyra’s boss, Laurie Swartzbaugh, deputy director of the State Mine Inspector’s Office.

To make do, the two supervisors run up the miles on their trucks and pick up bargain equipment whenever they can. Tyra’s uses an ATV purchased from a contractor looking to offload several after the Border Patrol backed out of a deal.

The office requests additional funding for abandoned mines every year, to no avail.

“It is a priority thing,” Swartzbaugh said. “We have put this in our budget for the past 11 years. We need more people out there to cover more ground, because every time we go out on the ground, we encounter more and more mines that are not in our database.”

Partnering for help

With only two abandoned-mine supervisors, the mine inspector’s office relies on outside help. It partners with the federal Bureau of Land Management, the Arizona Game & Fish Department and other agencies to find and catalog the mines and regulate access to them.

“We do a lot of work side-by-side with the state mine inspector,” said Eric Zielske, an environmental engineer with the BLM who runs the agency’s hazardous materials management program.

Teams of five or six from state and federal agencies offer a patchwork of assistance to the mine inspector’s office. They act as temporary supervisors, combing assigned plots of land for abandoned-mine features to add to the inspector’s database. Sometimes, they erect gates or fences.

These other agencies also occasionally shoulder the costs of abandoned-mine supervision. The BLM often provides the fence posts used by Arizona Game & Fish teams when they find abandoned mines.

However, the majority of additions to the state mine database come from Tyra and White because agencies that aren’t focused on mines have their own priorities.

But Tyra appreciates any help they can get. Even near Wickenburg, which he considers one of the best mapped areas in the state, Tyra estimates only 90 percent of the abandoned mines around the small town have been found and fenced.

A numbering system with tags wired to fencing helps mine inspectors quickly know the type and identity of abandoned mines like this one in Dragoon, Arizona. (Photo by Nicole Neri/ Cronkite News)

Setting priorities: Unsecured mines are deadly

Over Labor Day weekend in 2007, a tragedy struck the Mohave County town of Chloride, population 352. Two girls, Rikki Howard, 13, and Casie Hicks, 10, were riding ATVs with their father about 40 minutes northwest of Kingman when they fell into a mine shaft.

According to interviews and stories in the Kingman Daily Miner, their father called for help after realizing the girls weren’t behind him. Night set in, and by the time a rescue party found them the next day, Rikki was dead and Casie severely injured.

That mine was unknown to inspectors before the tragedy.

Many experts point to that incident as proof that Arizona’s abandoned mines are deadly, and state officials should make closing them a high priority.

Ruby Jones, who owns the Mineshaft Market and Chloride General Store, ticked off some of the abandoned mines around the town: Rainbow, Lucky Boy, Tyro.

“There used to be a hundred mines back in these mountains,” said Jones, who runs the town’s tourism office from a side room of the store. She keeps a collection of mining books and maps as part of an exhibit.

“We, at one point in time, had over 2,000 people living here,” she said. Jones has lived in Chloride for just two years, but she knows the story of Rikki and Casie.

Allen Bercowitz moved to Chloride in 2003.

“I drove in one day, never left. I like the town. It’s quiet,” he said.

But when Rikki died, Chloride, still grieving, became a magnet for media outlets.

“Those two girls, that was a rough time.”

Bercowitz said town residents try to steer clear of the mines they know are dangerous.

“I’m sure during the time that the mines were working, it (tragedy) happened all the time. These are shafts that go straight down.”

The site of the tragedy, the Brighter Days Mine, was fenced off three years after the girls fell, according to the Mohave Valley Daily News.

“Mining was never a safe profession,” Bercowitz said. “But these are kids, and they just fell into the hole.”

State Mine Inspector Joe Hart used the accident to push for more funding to prevent more tragedies – funding that still has not materialized 11 years later. Since 2007, one other person, Tyler Halverson, 19, has died in an abandoned mine.

Tyra still works to close mines such as the Brighter Days, but he keeps those deaths in mind as he checks the fence posts at well-known abandoned mines near Wickenburg.

“If what we do saves one person, it’s worth it,” Tyra said, pointing to the fence around the mouth of the Monte Cristo silver mine. “If this little dinky fence here keeps somebody from falling in there, it’s well worth everything we spent on it.”

An abandoned blacksmith shop sits on an abandoned mine site near Wickenburg, Arizona. There are an estimated 100,000 abandoned mines in the state and only a fraction are fenced off or gated to keep people out. (Photo by Nicole Neri/ Cronkite News)
The shack was once used for pulling ore carts at a now-abandoned mine near Wickenburg, Arizona. It’s filled with bullet holes from people shooting firearms out here over the years. (Photo by Nicole Neri/ Cronkite News)

Old mine sites need constant attention

Tyra’s job focuses on the safety of Arizona’s residents and visitors – but those very people often cause him the most problems.

When his office installs fencing and signs around a mine, they can act as a magnet for the curious. People often steal the signs.

“We’ve changed our signs,” Tyra said. “When I first started, we had had skull and crossbones on there, and that didn’t work. … You couldn’t put them up fast enough.”

He said he installed signs at one mine site three days in a row: “Each day, they were gone.”

In Wickenburg, Tyra picked up a bullet casing from the dirt and examined it. A .22 shell. Because the minecart-pulling rig and shed are the only man-made objects for miles, people use them for target practice.

“I shouldn’t say it,” he said, chuckling, “but you can’t fix stupid.”

If he doesn’t revisit the mines every so often, people will destroy the fences because they want to explore the depths.

“Somebody knocked it down. We put it up and put it up and put it up,” Tyra said. “All the ones that we’ve secured, we need to go back once a year or so just to take a look at them. There’s nothing to see in there, anyhow. It’s just a hole in the ground.”

There is very little the mine inspector’s office can do to stop people.

“It’s not against the law to go inside one of these things, unfortunately,” Swartzbaugh said. “But it is against the law to break the barriers.”

Nobody in Arizona has ever been been prosecuted for damaging the barriers – a felony with a maximum sentence of two years in prison, according to the state mine inspector’s office.

“You have to prove somebody has done that,” Swartzbaugh said. “Most of these mines are in the middle of nowhere, and it’s really hard unless you catch that person in the act, to prove that anybody took down a sign or took down fencing or anything like that.”

[2up_image_slim source1=”×500.jpg” caption1=”Joel Diamond, a bat biologist with Arizona Game & Fish, shows the strength of spider wire over an abandoned mine shaft near Dragoon, east of Tucson. The wire keeps people from falling into an old mine while allowing bats and other wildlife to easily come and go. (Photo by Nicole Neri/Cronkite News)” source2=”×500.jpg” caption2=”A bat sleeps in an abandoned mine near Dragoon. There are 28 bat species in the state, and old mines make good homes for them. “Arizona has the second-highest bat diversity in the U.S.,” said Joel Diamond, a bat biologist at Arizona Game & Fish. (Photo by Nicole Neri/Cronkite News)”]

Permanent closure is a long, arduous process

If he could, Tyra would bring in heavy machinery to every mine and fill it completely with rocks and dirt. But even if tractors and excavators could physically get to every mine, the permits and paperwork required to do this would prove prohibitive, he said.

To fill in an abandoned mine, parties involved must file paperwork with the Arizona State Historic Preservation Office and the Arizona Department of Agriculture. The requesters need to obtain a biological study to determine if wildlife in the mine would be impacted.

Bats pose a particular problem with this step.

Joel Diamond, a biologist for Arizona Game & Fish and a self-proclaimed bat lover, knows this challenges well.

“Arizona has the second-highest bat diversity in the U.S.,” he said, standing atop a wire mesh over a 40-foot mine shaft near Dragoon, about an hour east of Tucson. “We have 28 different species.”

Diamond estimated that about 15 percent of the mine features he finds are critical habitats for bats.

Diamond and his team often work as temporary abandoned-mine hunters on federal land, and they add mine features to the state’s inventory. They also install gates to allow bats to fly out while preventing human entry.

On top of all the paperwork and environmental concerns, the office also needs money to permanently close mine features. Using heavy duty tractors, conducting studies and installing bat gates isn’t cheap.

The mine inspector’s office needs authorization from the Legislature if it plans to spend $10,000 or more on a project, Swartzbaugh said.

It’s unclear what will happen with future funding requests for the Arizona State Mine Inspector’s office. But one thing is clear. The state’s only abandoned-mine supervisors – Tyra and White – are eligible for retirement. Tyra, who’s 75, said he would stay in the position as long as Hart remains state mine inspector.

Hart, 74, is not allowed under Arizona law to serve more than four terms; he won his fourth term in November.

If the office can’t get the money to hire and train new employees to take over, it might cause additional problems, Hart warned in a letter to Gov. Doug Ducey.

“It’s a hell of a job,” Tyra said. “If I’d have known about it 30 years ago, I’d have killed somebody to get it. But I have slowed down. I don’t go as gung-ho as I was.”

Joel Diamond, a bat biologist for Arizona Game & Fish, and his team often work as temporary abandoned-mine hunters on federal land. They also install gates to allow bats to fly out while keeping people out. (Photo by Nicole Neri/ Cronkite News)
Joel Diamond, a bat biologist with Arizona Game & Fish shows the strength of spider wire over an abandoned mine shaft near Dragoon, Arizona not far from Tucson. The wire keeps people from falling into an old mine while allowing animals such as bats to easily come and go. (Photo by Nicole Neri/ Cronkite News)

– Video by Cami Clark/Cronkite News

Arizona lacks funds to find, secure at least 100,000 abandoned mines

PHOENIX – After he started hallucinating, John Waddell began to believe he would die. He had fallen 100 feet to the bottom of an abandoned gold mine in western Maricopa County, leaving him with a broken leg and rope-burned hands.

“It’s like a black cloud that’s a little stringy, and these figures were coming out of this little cloud: It almost looked like animals,” he recalled during an October news conference at Banner-University Medical Center in Phoenix. “They were going around and around inside the mine.

“That was kind of freaky. If I stayed down there, I knew I was going to die.”

Waddell, 60, survived three days in El Tigre mine, fighting off rattlesnakes and praying somebody would look for him. He had explored the mine, which is on his property near Aguila, for decades, hoping to find gold still glittering in the dark tunnels.

He’s among potentially thousands of people – often spurred by curiosity, greed or dumb luck – who seek out or stumble into Arizona’s vast store of mines abandoned by long-dead prospectors.

The state has an estimated 100,000 abandoned mines, according to the Arizona State Mine Inspector’s Office. However, officials have only identified about 19,000 of them, and they’ve secured even fewer. As more people move to and visit Arizona – many eager to explore the state’s more remote lands – the chances of coming across one of these hazardous mines only increases.

Abandoned-mine supervisor Jerry Tyra, 75, and one other person are tasked with searching Arizona’s 9.3 million acres for abandoned mines and securing them. They face the daunting task of trying to keep the public away from old mines, a challenge exacerbated by the fact the state doesn’t have a good handle on how many abandoned mines there really are. (Photo by Nicole Neri/Cronkite News)

“We run into new mines every day,” said Laurie Swartzbaugh, deputy director of the Arizona State Mine Inspector’s Office.

The office only has two supervisors tasked with searching Arizona’s 9.3 million acres for these mines and securing them. They have legal authority to search all of the land, public or private. But these supervisors face the daunting task of trying to keep the public away from these mines, a challenge exacerbated by the fact the state doesn’t have a good handle on how many abandoned mines there really are.

Many experts believe Arizona has among the most abandoned mines in the country.

The mine inspector’s office has repeatedly requested more funding to help locate and secure these mines, but the Legislature has not granted a significant budget increase for its abandoned-mines program in a decade.

“We just don’t have enough people to get them all,” Swartzbaugh said.

State officials said it’s only a matter of time before more people die in these mines.

At least 35 people have died and 22 have been injured in abandoned mines in Arizona since 1969 – at least, that’s the best count from the mine inspector’s office. In fact, no state or federal agency has the exact number of deaths and injuries in Arizona because there’s no requirement that such accidents be reported.

The history: Mining goes unregulated for decades

Arizona did not begin regulating hardrock mining until the 1980s, and experts say tens of thousands of abandoned mines lie undiscovered. (Photo by Nicole Neri/Cronkite News)

Native Americans may have mined the land for turquoise, coal, clay and other minerals as early as 1000 BC, according to the State Mine Inspector’s Office. Spaniards began mining the land that would eventually become Arizona in the 1600s, according to the Arizona Mining Association, and over the next 400 years, the state’s rich bed of gold, silver, copper and other precious metals drew fortune seekers from around the world.

As the American West became more developed, larger mining operations opened, state mining officials said. Metal structures and mine carts began to dot the landscape, and abandoned mines became more common as prospectors left unsuccessful ventures for more profitable ones.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that Arizona began regulating hardrock mines more closely, mine experts in the state said. The state began to require mine operators to fill out hundreds of pages of paperwork and conduct environmental studies. Under current state law, prospectors must develop a plan for how to fill in any hole they open before they start digging.

Spaniards began mining the land in the 1600s, and for the next 400 years, Arizona’s rich bed of precious metals drew fortune seekers from around the world. (Photo by Daisy Finch/Cronkite News)

But mines that were dug in the centuries before had no such regulation. That lack of oversight for hundreds of years led to sprawling underground complexes the state didn’t even know existed – much less had the capability to ensure a safe closure when the ore deposits ran out, state mining officials said.

Each mine site may have several entrances and exits, called adits, along with vertical shafts – some as deep as 900 feet – to help miners get air underground. Each of these tunnels is called a “feature,” and a mine complex can have dozens of them.

The sheer number of features can make it more difficult and time consuming for officials to identify and secure all a mine’s parts.

It’s often impossible to determine the depth or length of an abandoned mine from the surface.

“What you see would be the open shafts, the entrances to the mine,” said Eric Zielske, an environmental engineer at the federal Bureau of Land Management’s main office in Phoenix. “That may not, from the surface, look like it has that big of a footprint until you realize ‘OK, there’s another shaft over here, another shaft there.’”

This aerial view of Oatman in December 1915 shows multiple mine locations, mining companies and townsites. (Photo courtesy of Mohave Museum)

The dangers: From hidden shafts to explosive materials

Abandoned mines often inspire treasure hunters, such as Waddell.

El Tigre mine, which began operating in 1939, is spread out over the 100 acres Waddell owns west of Phoenix.

“This particular shaft in my records indicated there was quite a bit of gold down inside, and I had explored everything else around the mine,” Waddell said, adding, “This is what I’ve been doing for 20 years. It gets in your blood.”

But people often underestimate the danger of entering and exploring these old mines. The dangers include collapsing boards and rocks, water-filled pits, dangerous animals, old explosives or hazardous chemicals and poor air quality, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

“They’re neat sites to go to, so sometimes you get people (who) like to camp out there,” Zielske said. “The risk there is people like to explore these open mine shafts or adits, and they don’t realize sometimes when you go walking into one of those areas, you can have limited oxygen.”

These mines are often in rugged, remote areas with limited cell phone service.

In Waddell’s case, his rigging snapped during his descent into the mine, and he had no way of contacting help. Without service, his cellphone was useless, so he had no choice but to wait until a friend came looking for him.

Waddell had told Terry Schrader where he was headed. Two days later, when Waddell still had not returned, Schrader set out.

“I thought I heard somebody pull up with a diesel truck. It was real quiet, and I started yelling and yelling ‘Help! Help!’” Waddell recalled at the hospital news conference in October.

“I started hearing someone hollering back, and I broke down and started crying because I knew that I’m going to get out of here.”

The U.S. Forest Service points out that people can run into bats, snakes, spiders, bobcats, mountain lions and other predators in these mines.

“Where I landed, I would have been face-to-face with this rattlesnake. Why it didn’t bite me or strike at me at first, I don’t know. But it didn’t,” Waddell said. “I pulled out the stick and started beating on this rattlesnake.”

Waddell killed the snake, the first of three during his three days underground.

But one wrong step on Waddell’s part could have led to disaster, as it has for many others.

Light shines through a collapsed wall in an abandoned mine about 40 minutes west of Kingman. There are an estimated 100,000 abandoned mines throughout Arizona; many have no fences or warning signs to keep people out. (Photo by Celisse Jones/Cronkite News)

In 1982, 15-year-old John Borrowdale died while exploring an abandoned mine in Arizona he found while hunting with a friend. In the darkness inside, he missed an 850-foot vertical shaft inside the main tunnel and fell to his death, according to records from the Arizona State Mine Inspector.

Dozens of people die or become injured in the U.S. every year while exploring or playing on both active and abandoned mine sites, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Roger Yensen, commander of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office’s volunteer Mountain Rescue Posse, said his unit alone rescues somebody from a mine shaft once every 12 to 16 months.

But – as with the number of abandoned mines – the state doesn’t have precise records for the number of accidents at these mines.

Until 2007, the mine inspector’s office tracked abandoned mine-related accidents by collecting newspaper clippings.

“I can’t guarantee what made the newspapers and what didn’t,” Swartzbaugh said. She said the office likely missed “some accidents or things that occurred that were not ever in the newspapers.”

For the past 11 years, the office has relied on law enforcement agencies to relay the information to them if a mine accident happens. But the state has no mandatory reporting policy, and what to report, if anything, falls to the individual agency responding to an incident.

Before Waddell’s accident, state records indicate the last abandoned mine shaft injury reported to the Arizona State Mine Inspector’s Office was in 2009.

But officials said growing population centers, including metro Phoenix and Tucson, are bringing more people in contact with previously hidden abandoned mines.

“You’re encroaching if we’re building out in those areas,” Swartzbaugh said. “Phoenix was not as large and as broken into as many cities in the 1800s. So, we’re encroaching on them.”

Even South Mountain Park, a hiking mecca for Phoenix and the largest municipal park in the country, has several easily accessible abandoned mines, including the well-trafficked Max Delta mine.

Havasu 4 Wheelers Club member Jim Bowen lets air out of his Jeep’s tires before making the drive through rough terrain in the Mojave Desert. Club members were out recently to check the fencing they’ve installed around several abandoned mines. (Photo by Jordan Evans/Cronkite News)

The solutions: Is money the only answer?

Several leaders from abandoned-mine programs in other states said the easiest way to improve safety is simple: provide the mine inspector’s office more money so it can hire more supervisors and pay for the materials to secure the mines.

Until that happens, the Arizona Mine Inspector’s Office must make do with the resources it has. Some civilian groups also have stepped in to help – although that’s not necessarily the solution state officials want.

Arizona’s abandoned mine program has a budget of just more than $194,000 per year, a drop in the bucket of the state’s $10.1 billion budget, which allocates the bulk of funding to education, health and correctional programs.

“That’s not very much money to operate a program,” said Autumn Coleman, president of the National Association of Abandoned Mine Lands Programs. “But it is better than nothing.”

The state, which could have the largest number of abandoned mines in the country, has not provided more money to the program – other than administrative adjustments, such as liability insurance – since the program was formally granted a budget in 2009. The inspector’s office has made yearly requests for more money, government budget documents show.

“We need more people out there to cover more ground because every time we go out (for) on-the-ground reconnaissance, we encounter more and more mines that are not in our database,” Swartzbaugh said.

Elise Kulik, an analyst for the governor’s Office of Strategic Planning and Budgeting, declined to comment on Gov. Doug Ducey’s budget priorities, deferring to a spokeswoman for the governor. That spokeswoman declined an interview with Cronkite News or to answer specific questions, but she sent a general statement about the governor’s budget priorities.

“We work closely with leaders, including the state mine inspector, to develop agency budgets with the goal of ensuring public health and safety of Arizonans,” the statement read.

Many other states fund their abandoned-mine programs through coal-mine taxes. But Arizona, California and Nevada produce little or no coal.

“If you don’t have any coal mines in your state, you don’t have any funding for the state mine inspector,” said Tom Gilleland, who owns Prescott-based Mine Gates Environmental, a company that designs and builds gates for abandoned mines and caves.

Arizona is the only one of the three low-coal Western states that does not have a dedicated revenue stream to its abandoned-mine program. California’s Department of Conservation revenue comes from gold mining, and Nevada’s program receives $10 for every mining claim submitted in the state. Nevada’s abandoned-mine program received more than $1 million in 2017, according to that state’s Division of Minerals.

In its inventory database, the Arizona State Mine Inspector’s office has the location of about 19,000 mine features, roughly the number that Nevada’s program has already closed.

Because so many abandoned mines have gone unidentified and unsecured in Arizona, some civilian groups have taken on the effort themselves.

– Video by Jordan Evans/Cronkite News

For the past decade, the Havasu 4 Wheelers Club – a recreational group whose members bounce through the Mojave Desert in Jeeps – has prowled the dozens of trails near Lake Havasu City and fenced off about 180 abandoned-mine adits and shafts to keep other off-roaders safe, group representatives said.

“This is one of the first ones we did,” said Darryld Kautzmann, the fencing coordinator for the club, pointing to a barrier at the bottom of a rocky hill in the Mojave Desert during a trip in October to check on past work.

“We’ve fenced virtually every complex,” he said. “Now we’ve got isolated mines.”

Kautzmann, 78, checked the posts and examined the barbed wire of the fence, making sure erosion around the edges of the pit hadn’t loosened the barrier.

The group wants to ensure off-road vehicles don’t accidentally drive into an abandoned mine while cresting a hill or passing too close to an unseen hole.

Kautzmann said a member of the club came close to dying in one mineshaft 10 years ago. He drove his Jeep halfway into the shaft, which was at least 30 feet deep, on the edge of a popular trail. Other club members saved the driver by winching the back of his vehicle and dragging it out.

However, the Arizona State Mine Inspector’s Office discourages groups such as the Havasu 4 Wheelers Club from trying to secure mine features. Officials worry about the risk of well-meaning fencers falling to their death.

“We do not encourage someone to go out to these abandoned mines to post or fence or to look for them,” Swartzbaugh said. “If you step on them, you fall – and either a short distance, which might be 30 feet, or you fall a lot further than that and you don’t survive it.”

The Green Valley News reported in 2017 about a group called the Hazardous Abandoned Mine Finders, which had been doing similar civilian fencing work across Pima, Santa Cruz and Cochise counties since 1989.

The group reportedly put up warning signs and fence posts around 10,000 abandoned-mine features, but it shut down when the U.S. Forest Service pulled support from the group, citing staff members’ concerns about safety.

Havasu 4 Wheelers Club members downplayed the threat.

“We’ve got people with a variety of backgrounds to work in hazardous situations,” said Jim Bowen, a former president of the Havasu 4 Wheelers Club. He said many of the group’s 450 members are retired firefighters, police officers and EMTs. “We go out as a group, and we’ve become very efficient at doing it.”

Groups such as the Havasu 4 Wheelers Club are rare because groups that interact with abandoned mines could be liable for any future deaths or injuries, especially if any environmental problems occur, according to current federal law.

“We don’t really see too much of what we would call the Good Samaritans going out building these fences,” said Robert Ghiglieri, chief of Nevada’s Abandoned Mine Lands program. “There are large companies that would be willing to do some Good Samaritan work, but they understand, especially with environmental, once they touch it, they own it, and nobody wants to bring that liability onto themselves.”

Tom Gilleland, who owns Mine Gates Environmental, designs and builds gates to cover mine entrances, exits and vertical shafts. (Photo by Daisy Finch/Cronkite News)

The fences aren’t foolproof

Fencing is the most common and inexpensive method to secure abandoned mines, but it’s also one of the least effective, according to mine safety experts, because it can highlight the mine’s existence to curious explorers, who merely have to cut wire, duck under a fence or kick down a post to subvert the barrier.

Installing metal gates over shafts and adits are more effective at stopping people, but they’re also more expensive.

Gilleland, whose company bids on government contracts for such projects, said the shop does fewer jobs in Arizona than in neighboring Nevada and New Mexico.

“They have no funding,” Gilleland said of Arizona. While Gilleland declined to give a price range for his services, officials from the Arizona State Mine Inspector’s Office say each gate can run in the thousands of dollars. In comparison, a fence usually costs less than $100.

Partnerships and other solutions may help lower the danger for Arizona’s high number of abandoned mines, but the only true solution is spending more money, said Coleman, with the National Association of Abandoned Mine Lands Programs.

“That’s pretty much what it comes down to,” she said.

In the meantime, Swartzbaugh submitted the office’s next budget proposal to Ducey on Aug. 30. The proposal includes a $347,000 request to hire three additional people for the abandoned-mines program, including supervisors. Mine Inspector Joe Hart, who declined multiple interview requests by Cronkite News, has written the same letter to accompany that request every year since his election in 2006.

“We can only anticipate that additional deaths and injuries will occur under the existing conditions,” Hart wrote. “It is not a matter of ‘if,’ it is a matter of when another death or injury will occur.”

– Videos by Bryce Newberry/Cronkite News