ELKO — Boom. Bust. Rush. Crash.
These words are associated with the cyclical nature of the world’s minerals extraction industry known for making and breaking companies, economies, towns and fortunes.
Nevada – where mining has existed before statehood — has witnessed these ups and downs over time but now is experiencing a rather rare phenomenon in the mining industry.
“There has been a gold rush in Nevada for close to 50 years,” said John Muntean, an economic geologist and associate professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, who works for the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology.
The gold boom is the biggest in U.S. history, defined by high annual production and long life of mines, according to a Nevada mineral industry report that Muntean co-authored.
Decades-long production at operations, such as those along the Carlin Trend, defies the traditional ebb and flow of mining camps throughout the history of the state and world.
Mining gold and other minerals in the Nevada positioned the state as the No. 1 gold-producing region in the nation and a top producer in the world. For locals, continuous mining means careers in the field and robust economies — but how long will it last?
A look back at Nevada’s major gold discoveries, production, reserves and exploration provides hints about the future of mining.
Building the boom
Perhaps the best known mining operations in the state follow the Carlin Trend where major mining companies Newmont Mining Corp. and Barrick Gold Corp. have been in operation for decades.
“It was a world-class discovery and deposit,” said Dana Bennett, Nevada Mining Association president and historian. “Nevada’s current gold industry really does date back to 1965.”
The discovery of microscopic gold on the Carlin Trend allowed Newmont to start development of its Carlin operations in the early 1960s. At the time, reserves were estimated to be less than 1 million ounces, said Rich Perry, administrator of the Nevada Division of Minerals, implying a short mine life.
Cumulative production, however, from the Carlin Trend reached 88.2 million ounces at the end of 2016, “assuring its place as one of the most productive gold-mining districts in the world,” according to the Nevada mineral industries report.
The geologists’ “uncanny vision, persistence, innovation — and let’s not forget in this industry, good ole lady luck — led to one of the biggest discoveries of gold that prospectors of years past could neither see but even more importantly, couldn’t even imagine,” said Tom Kerr, who was then Newmont’s senior vice president of North America, at a celebration in 2015 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the company’s first gold pour.
Additional mining companies mine along the Carlin Trend, which casts an about 5-by-40-mile swath over northeastern Nevada in Eureka County. Barrick’s Goldstrike Mine is on the northern Carlin Trend where about 20 mines and deposits are situated, according to a 2017 technical report for Goldstrike.
Geologists also began recognizing Carlin-type deposits in other areas of the state such as in the Cortez District outside of Beowawe. There, mining began with a focus on silver in the late 1800s but shifted to mainly gold production in the 1960s. Today, Barrick maintains its Cortez operations in that area.
Just east of the Pequop Mountain Range near Oasis, Newmont began operations at the Long Canyon open pit mine in 2016 and plans to advance to a second phase of mining that includes going underground. The company produced 22,000 ounces of gold by the end of 2016 and 174,000 ounces of gold in 2017, according to Newmont’s annual report.
“That’s [a Carlin-type deposit], but to put it in perspective, it’s close to 90 million ounces on the Carlin Trend, and Long Canyon has only between 2-3 million ounces,” Muntean said, estimating that it will “not be one of the big camps.”
“You never know,” he added. “You might find something down the line.”
Mining in Nevada extends even further back than the Carlin Trend discovery.
The first miners were Native Americans who quarried rock for making tools and trading, said Bennett, who emphasized that focusing on only gold discoveries limits the view of the state’s mining industry.
In more recent history, prospectors passing through Nevada for the California Gold Rush found gold by panning in the Carson River in 1849.
“That really started what we should really call the modern mining industry,” Bennett said.
Interest in Nevada gold brought miners to the Dayton area “and they really struggled to develop an industry,” she said. “It wasn’t until the discovery of the Comstock Lode [in 1859] — which is a silver operation — that it really took off.”
Silver was the primary metal mined in Virginia City, but estimates show that 42 percent of production was gold, according to a Nevada Humanities history. Gold production was secondary at other operations around the state, as well.
“There was gold mining, no doubt about that, and there were periods of increased production,” Bennett said. “Other types of mining, other production, has exceeded gold production” at various stages of history.
She described the mining of silver in Tonopah and Goldfield and the mining of copper in Ely during the early 20th century. Additionally, the Getchell Mine in Humboldt County began as a gold mine in 1938 but had to shift to the production of “strategic” arsenic during World War II when the government shut down gold producers, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Today, Barrick has a 75 percent interest in the mine, now called Turquoise Ridge, where reserve grades are among the highest in the gold industry, the company states. Newmont owns the remaining 25 percent of Turquoise Ridge.
Production at Kinross Gold Corp.’s Bald Mountain and Round Mountain mines places Kinross with Barrick and Newmont in the list of the state’s top three producers of 2017, according to Nevada Division of Minerals estimates. An additional 14 operators ran 27 gold mines in the state in 2017.
Sustaining a boom
In the current boom, Nevada’s gold production has totaled almost 200 million ounces, according to the Nevada mineral industry report, which calculated results from 1965 to 2016.
Those ounces are more than were produced in any other gold rush, the report continues: The California Gold Rush, 1849-1859, had an estimated 29-70 million ounces, while the Comstock era, 1860-1875, had an estimated 34 million ounces.
A major difference is the length of the current boom compared to previous periods of production.
“Gold camps throughout history peak,” Muntean said, “and then they tail off, and there is a long steady decline.”
Although the state’s total gold production in 2017 increased by 3 percent, experts acknowledge that operators of aging mines and explorers must continue to adapt to stay viable.
“We’re a mature mining district,” said Eric Saderholm, president of gold exploration company American Pacific Mining. He previously served as Newmont Mining Corp.’s exploration manager for the Western U.S. “There comes a time when you do stress the limits.”
Technological advances are partly to credit for Nevada mines’ sustainability. Developing techniques such open-pit mining, heap leaching and extracting gold with cyanide rather than mercury helped to make operations more efficient. Further advances through digitization and automation could help production to continue at mature mines.
“Clearly the impact of technology is going to continue as the use of batteries and other types of engineering production and storage will have a great effect on what happens in Nevada mines,” Bennett said.
Breakthroughs yet unknown could make other gold resources — such as deeper deposits, waste piles or stockpiles — more accessible or economically viable, just like the discovery of microscopic gold on the Carlin Trend more than 50 years ago paved the way for the current boom.
“This is not a historical artifact that never changes,” Bennett said. Continuous mining operations “advance the industry and apply across other industries, as well.”