This unauthorized mine road will cost man $80,000

A San Juan County landowner accused of building an illegal road near Silverton has agreed to pay $80,000 for reclamation.

Federal land officials said Andrew VanDenBerg constructed a mile-long road to provide vehicular access to his patented mining claim two miles south of Silverton.

The unauthorized road was discovered in August 2008 in the Whitehead Gulch Wilderness Study Area in the Deer Creek drainage on Bureau of Land Management land. The 10- to 20-foot wide road followed the general alignment of the Whitehead Trail and overlapped the public trail in most places.

VanDenBerg, 51, of Placerville, denied any wrongdoing during a phone interview Wednesday. He said he removed deadfall and cleaned ditches to access private property on a road that has been there for 126 years.

He settled the case because it would have cost more to go to court, he said.

“They have endless pockets and I do not,” he said. “I got totally raped.”

As a Wilderness Study Area, no mechanical equipment can be used to build or maintain roads.

VanDenBerg used mechanical equipment to remove topsoil and cut hundreds of trees of all sizes, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Denver, which filed a federal lawsuit against him in 2011 seeking to recover costs for restoration of the land.

He also installed a gate with a lock, preventing horse access.

Under terms of the settlement, VanDenBerg admits no wrongdoing, and the federal government makes no concession that its claims were not well-founded.

VanDenBerg is prohibited from further trespassing on the land.

“Wilderness Study Areas are pristine and special places protected by law,” U.S. Attorney John Walsh said in a news release Wednesday. “Chain saws and excavators in these areas illegally rip the wild out of the wilderness. Trespassers who damage our public lands must pay for the damage they have done.”

The area affected had a mix of conifer forest and riparian zone at altitudes exceeding 11,000 feet in elevation. The road damaged topsoils, a watershed, vegetation and wildlife habitat.

Repairs have been made, but it will take years for the land to return to its original condition, said Helen Hankins, director of the BLM in Colorado.

“The impacts from this trespass are so significant that achieving a ‘substantially unnoticeable’ condition in the short term is not possible,” she said in a news release.

shane@durangoherald.com