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Rockhounds rush opal discovery

Rockhounds rush opal discovery

BLM official worries about impact to area

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COURTESY/Wyoming Geological Survey

Opal discovered in Fremont County has triggered interest in the area.

LANDER - Would-be opal prospectors and miners lined up 50-deep Friday morning to buy a 12-page report about an opal deposit in the Granite Mountains in Fremont County.

At 11 a.m. Friday, the Wyoming Geological Survey in Laramie announced the location of a large opal deposit in central Wyoming.

"We had 40 to 50 people lined up at the door before we started selling the report at 11 a.m.," said Nancy Elliott, the survey's sales manager. By mid-afternoon, she had sold at least 25 copies of the report.

"Geology of the Central Rim opal deposit, Granite Mountains, central Wyoming," includes a location map and photos of opals from the site, weighing in at 11, 25 and 34 pounds. The state office is selling the report for $5 plus tax and has yet to decide whether the report will be posted on the Internet.

Pam Stiles of the Bureau of Land Management in Cheyenne said her office was swamped with hundreds of telephone calls on Friday.

"I had one lady out there talking to me by (satellite) phone, setting stakes in a claim this afternoon," Stiles said.

She warned would-be prospectors that land ownership in and around the opal deposit is complicated, including private, state, federal and split-estate properties.

"There isn't anything simple about this," Stiles said.

Jack Kelly, head of the BLM's office in Lander, said the opal deposit sites are found east and west of the Sand Draw Highway along Beaver Rim, between Sweetwater Station and Riverton. Other than the highway and a couple of oil production roads, the area is roadless save for rough two-tracks.

"I worry about people running around out there," Kelly said. Snowdrifts can fill up draws, and melting snow can create muddy conditions, he said.

Kelly said there are no significant land withdrawals on BLM properties in the area, but he doesn't know how many pre-existing mining claims might already be out there. There are sensitive environmental, scenic and cultural concerns that will require careful planning, he warned.

Opals are associated with volcanic activity and more particularly the silica-rich volcanic ash. As water percolates through the ash, it can lead to opal's watery mixture of silica dioxide, streaked with minerals. The most common opal is milky white. Less common is fiery opal, which has red and orange streaks and specks in it. Precious opal, which was treasured by Roman emperors, is the most valuable, ablaze with iridescent colors.

The giant opals dug up by state geologists Dan Hausel and Wayne Sutherland are common opals and not valuable in and of themselves. Yet the discovery of the opal fields raises the possibility n and prospector hopes n that the deposit will host substantial amounts of fiery orange opal and precious

opal. Hausel and Sutherland have seen fiery opal and traces of precious opal at the site.

Star-Tribune correspondent Brodie Farquhar can be contacted online at brodiefarquhar@hotmail.com.

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