Mine threatens century of co-operation in ranching

The Ajax File: All That Glitters - Part 2 of 5

Neighbours don't change often around here.

Rancher George Little lives a few kilometres away from Jocko Creek Ranch. He grew up best friends with Noel Michell, whose grandfather, J.R., a mayor of Kamloops, founded Jocko Creek Ranch in 1903.

In each of the past 25 years, Noel's son, Ralph, has herded cattle from the home ranch's calving grounds along Lac Le Jeune Road a few kilometres before turning them east on a dirt road leading to a pasture of rich bluebunch wheatgrass owned by Little, on the other side of Coal Hill from the Aberdeen subdivision.

To get there, Ralph crosses over land owned by Sugarloaf Ranch, owned by Teck Resources Ltd. but operated as a good neighbour by the Ciancone family for decades.

All brand cattle together each spring and operate on what Ralph called a "neighbour's handshake" basis of trust.

But a new neighbour has moved in, a billion-dollar neighbour that threatens to undo the trust, ruin livelihoods and undermine the working relationship of mining and ranching that's existed here for a century.

"It's like having a bad neighbour you can't do anything about," said Ralph, who lives with his wife, Chris, in a tidy 1950s-style home visible from the road.

The view north from the gate of the Michell home is of Douglas fir timberlands lacing through mid-elevation grasslands, Sugarloaf Hill and Coal Hill, a view that hasn't changed much since Ralph's great-grandfather built here. But that's all slated to change if an open pit copper-gold mine proposed by KGHM Ajax passes environmental reviews.

In five years or so, that view to the north, toward Kamloops, will include high-intensity lights from a mill, the sounds of blasting, the rumbling of big rigs hauling concentrate and trucks carrying ore, and a tailings pile and two rock dumps towering 100 metres above the plain - one-third to half the height of Sugarloaf Hill itself.

Michell estimates when the operation finally is mined out it will result in the loss of food production for about 1,000 head of cattle as rock buries range forever.

"People don't get the scale unless you've lived by a mine or worked at a mine," said Michell, who has had several years to think about the scope of plans.

Up the road at Little's ranch, George said about four years ago company representatives "came to me and said they wanted to start this.

"A while later they wanted to take my property for the mine," said the 77-year old rancher whose father, Jack, started it in the 1920s.

At first, Little said he pushed for a trade to replace the land. But later, he determined his time for ranching was nearing the end of the trail and times were tough in the business.

Today, the joint venture mining firm has a seven-figure option to purchase his deeded land, which Little called "pretty darn good money.

"I've done all right by the mine," Little said. "(But) all the money in the world won't replace my friends and neighbours if they have to move away."

Jim Excell, president and CEO of Abacus Mining and Development Corp., said the company wants to be good neighbours. It has a deal to purchase part of Sugarloaf Ranch from Teck and is working on a deal to sew up the rest.

"We don't instantly cover the footprint," Excell said of operations. "For a great number of years there will be a large amount of land in ranching and it would remain so."

Ralph and Chris live in a kind of limbo. KGHM Ajax is in talks with Ralph's sister, who lives down the road, because it may need her land. And the company already has an option to buy about one-third of George Little's ranch.

Thus far, it doesn't need Michell's land or co-operation. Yet he is facing loss of use of Little's spring pasture, which he's rented for decades, and the spectre of a monstrous, loud and ugly neighbour.

"Very few of us know what will be lost," he said. "We're the ones out here using the land."

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