U.S. Forest Service officials are calling the search "a long shot" but prospectors have applied for permits to scour the White Mountain National Forest for uranium and thorium.
The 730,000-acre forest lies mostly in New Hampshire, with about 30,000 acres in Maine. It's a popular recreation area offering skiing well into the summer on the east's peak, Mount Washington.
Forest Service spokesman Hoyt Hall says that prospecting and any possible mining would take place in the New Hampshire portion of the forest in the Mount Washington Valley region.
The Appalachian Mountain Club has filed a request to delay the prospecting permit. AMC conservation director Sally Surgenor says her group is "concerned about the extent to which prospecting is linked with actual mining.The analysis we've seen from the Forest Service is inadequate."
Surgenor says that mining is uncommon in New England "and we want this to proceed slowly, if at all. We just don't have the assurances that a permit to prospect is not linked to a mining permit."
The AMC is a 50-year-old organization pledged to safeguarding the national forest. The club maintains shelters for hikers and mountain climbers along the Appalachain Trail.
Hoyt says that Frederick Young and Robert Economoe, both of Cincinnati, Ohio have applied for the prospecting rights in about 40,000 acres of forest. They want ot test for "hot spots" in what is called Conway Granite. Most of the area to be prospected is composed entirely of the granite.
It has been known for some time that Conway Granite has concentrations of uranium and thorium," says Hall. "However, it has been thought that the amount is so small that mining would not be feasible. He adds that the granite has radioactive material throughout, "but we don't expect them to find many concentrated areas."
Economoe and Young would not comment on their plans for prospecting in New Hampshire.
Actual permits for mining and prospecting are granted by the federal government's Bureau of Land Management, says Hall. "When they get an application, they immediately forward it to us. The law is written so that if we are not favorable to the permit being granted it cannot legally be issued. But right now we favor granting the prospecting permit."
Hall says the Forest Service would like the area in question to be explored "because we want to know what's there. If it is found that the amount is too low we could eliminate mining in that area once and for all."
Mining is not common in the White Mountain National Forest, although a few permits have been issued. There is an abandoned zinc mine in Warren, N.H. says Hall. "And a permit to mine feldspar on the Maine side recently expired. It wasn't renewed because the mine really wasn't active.
The uranium prospecting permit application asks for three phases of operation. As Hoyt explain it, the prospectors would first make broad sweeps over the area looking for highly radioactive hot spots. "Then they would go in for a hand-held meter survey. If they still consider it a good place, they would drill 200-to-300-foot deep core borings."
Thomas Deans a spokesman for the AMC in New Hampshire says, "The problem is we don't understand that if the prospector finds something . . . are we obligated to let them go in and exploit it?"
Dean adds, "We oppose the granting of this permit. We don't think there is the knowledge about mining in New England and in Federal forests that we need to make this decision. Not enough of the information about this application has been made public, and I haven't encountered one person who has enough of the answers."
The Forest Service will stop accepting arguments in support of and against the requests for prospecting rights on Aug. 8. Forrester Hall adds, "Sometime after that date, we'll recommend an action. But I can tell you right now we're looking at it favorably."