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The accidental activist: a mining fight in Silver City

Christopher Smith
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Joe McCarthy of the Comstock Residents Assocation is fighting a proposed mining operation in his Silver City neighborhood.

Virginia City, Silver City, Gold Hill -- these towns in the northwestern elbow of Nevada were once boomtowns fueled by the discovery of the famous Comstock Lode in 1859. Today, these sleepy villages of hundreds of residents each are tourist curiosities and rural retreats for retirees.

Silver City resident Joe McCarthy has his own term for these places. “They’re post-mining era communities,” he says. “We’ve invested in homes, rehabilitated the area, and established a very active, close-knit community.” Their gold-and-glory days well behind them, these hillside towns are in their quiet second act.

Or so McCarthy thought. Joe, his wife Ann moved to Silver City nine years ago to settle into peaceful retirement. They built a custom home on 20 acres and became close friends with their neighbors. But then they learned that not everyone considered mining a relic of the past: Enter Nevada-based Comstock Mining Inc., which holds about 8,300 acres of mining claims in Lyon and Storey County. According to McCarthy and other residents, CMI pushed to change the Lyon County master plan to allow for pit mining in Silver City – a mere “two or three football fields away” from the McCarthy’s home. Indeed, despite resident petitions, the support of the citizen advisory board and the planning commission, the Lyon County Commission voted in 2014 to change the master plan to allow CMI to pursue pit mining in the area.

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“It’ll destroy our town, no doubt about it,” says McCarthy. He says other examples of modern pit mining in the area suggest a grim future for Silver City if CMI moves forward. “This is some of the most beautiful land in Nevada. It’s got that Nevada vibe – rough and tumble. (Pit mining has) turned it into a moonscape. It’s hideous.”

Today, McCarthy, a retired economic development director for Carson City, is hardly retired. He’s a tirelessly active member of the Comstock Residents Association fighting the rezoning. The association has sued Lyon County for “abuse of discretion,” seeking to overturn the changing of the master plan. The lawsuit is mired in the courts right now over a request to get access to commissioners’ cell phone records, and McCarthy is measured in his optimism about winning the bigger  battle.

“Our prospects of winning the lawsuit may not be great,” he says. “But at least we can send a message that says you can’t ignore the will of your residents. The county never had a legitimate reason to change their mind about our master plan defining this place as a post-mining era community.”

The battle between the Comstock Residents Association and CMI shows that, even in these small towns with their boomtown history well behind them, mining is very much part of the present.

Heidi Kyser contributed reporting to this story.

As a longtime journalist in Southern Nevada, native Las Vegan Andrew Kiraly has served as a reporter covering topics as diverse as health, sports, politics, the gaming industry and conservation. He joined Desert Companion in 2010, where he has helped steward the magazine to become a vibrant monthly publication that has won numerous honors for its journalism, photography and design, including several Maggie Awards.