White Sands Missile Range > Public Affairs > Victorio Peak Stories > Part 5 -- 7/20/90 -- The environmental assessment for the search

The 200-plus page environmental assessment for the search into Victorio Peak arrived at White Sands on June 14, 1990 It is called, An Environmental Assessment of The Ova Noss Family Partnership Expedition into Victorio Peak, and was prepared by ECoPlan, Inc. of Albuquerque with the archaeological work being done by Human Systems Research, Inc. of Mesilla.

In the general description of the document it states, "There are several clearly defined steps to complete this operation." The steps are:

1) Improve the roads so drilling equipment can be put on the peak;

2) Locate and define the treasure cavern by drilling bore holes and using ground sensing radar;

3) Get to the cavern by tunneling or boring;

4) Explore the cavern for treasure and cultural antiquities;

5) Document and remove anything found;

6) Close all entrances to the peak;

7) Restore the landscape by approved reclamation methods.

To get the heavy equipment to the peak, the road will have to be improved. Currently, only high clearance vehicles with a relatively short wheel base can negotiate the hairpin curves and only four-wheel drive vehicles can actually get on the peak. The partnership proposed widening the road to a width of 15 feet.

Once on the peak, the group will use drilling equipment to put down a maximum of 10 bore holes which will be four to six inches in diameter. These holes will be drilled on the west and northwest slopes of the peak and will penetrate to a depth of up to 400 feet. These bore holes will allow the placement of the ground radar sensors deep in the peak and, if they penetrate the cavern, a small camera can be lowered to examine the cavity.

Once the partnership defines where the cavern is, they have proposed two possible methods of getting to it. One is to bore a hole straight through the limestone to the cave. This would involve erecting a 140-foot rig and drilling a 42-inch hole. The bits would be water cooled with trucked in tap water to avoid possible contamination of ground water.

They would run a pair of 600-horsepower air compressors which would remove cuttings from the hole. The document goes into some detail discussing the noise this machinery would make in the area. At its maximum, the noise would measure 85 to 87 decibels in the immediate area. They do not compare this to the noise made by Air Force jets which regularly maneuver in the Yonder Area gunnery range which is immediately over Victorio Peak.

This boring operation would run 24 hours a day with an estimated progress of eight to 16 feet per day. They estimate it will take 20 to 50 days to penetrate 400 feet into Victorio.

Once they reach the cavern a 36-inch steel sleeve would be Inserted into the hole. This would allow access to the room. On completion of the operation, the partnership says it can weld a lid on the sleeve and cover it with dirt or backfill the sleeve itself and cover it.

The second and preferred method of gaining access to the cave is traditional tunneling. First, they plan to open seven existing holes to see if any can be used to shorten the distance to the cavern and reduce the amount of work needed.

The seven holes they plan to look at are: Porter-McDonald Tunnel, Soldiers Hole, Gaddis Tunnel, Upper Noss Shaft, Ova Noss Intercept, the West Lower Entry and Trench 1 Entry. These are all on the west and north sides of the peak. They do not mention using the Mule Hole or the Berlett-Fiege Hole.

The tunnel or adit will be about 6x8 to 8x8 feet in diameter, as long as 400 feet in length and unsupported. They plan to use a Roadheader tunneling machine which grinds itself into the rock using circulating rotary heads which have a compressive strength of 10,000 psi. The machine uses a conveyor belt system to move the cuttings.

If the big machine doesn´t work because of the hardness of the rock, it will be moved and the work continued using the drill and blast technique. This is classic hard rock tunneling. Holes are drilled into the facing wall. Explosives are Inserted into the holes and detonated. The debris is then removed by hand or machine.

The document says by working two 12-hour shifts the workers should be able to advance eight to 16 feet per day.

Once the tunnel is completed, visitors would simply be able to walk to the cavern. After the operation is complete the partnership proposes backfilling the tunnel with the tailings.

In addition to the proposed "how to" information in the environmental assessment there is a great deal of data on the natural and cultural background of the area. For instance, the area is made mostly of Paleozoic sedimentary rock which is about 290 million years old. This includes shales, limestones, sandstones and reef material.

Apparently about 290 million years ago this area was under a large shallow marine sea known as the Virgillian Basin. It was a swampy, tropical lowland with shallow, brackish water. As the sea rose at one point a reef gradually grew in certain areas. A reef now caps Victorio Peak as the surrounding material has eroded away.

Because the sea was so shallow there are both marine and land plant fossils found on Victorio Peak.

The assessment lists hundreds of "potential species" to be found around Victorio Peak. This includes mammals such as mule deer and bobcat and everything down to octillo and sunflowers.

The document states, "No Federal Endangered or Threatened Species are expected at Victorio Peak. However, there was potential habitat for three State Endangered Plants and five State Sensitive plants as well as two State Endangered Animals."

The animals are the desert bighorn sheep and the gray vireo(a small songbird). None were documented at the peak. Of the state endangered and/or sensitive plants, four were actually found on the peak. They are Sandberg´s pincushion, button cactus, rock daisy and the Threadleaf horsebrush.

Human Systems Research did the archaeology for the report and it provides interesting information on the area. It says human occupation of the San Andres Mountains extends from the PaleoIndian era (12,000 to 8,000 B.C.) to the present. It states, "Doubtless, many thousands of sites occur in the White Sands Missile Range."

The report talks about five sites at Victorio Peak. The three around the base include two prehistoric sites and the Henderson goat ranch found at the foot of the peak. The other two sites are on the peak and are a badly disturbed prehistoric site and the mining and treasure hunting work on the hill.

On the east side of the peak in a rock outcropping is a cross which is about four feet high and three feet wide. There are many legends dealing with this cross as many people feel it is a manmade marker for the treasure. The scientists say in the report that the horizontal bar is formed by the action of acidic water much like water dissolves limestone to form cave decorations. The vertical line of the cross is merely staining caused by water running down the rock in the same path for centuries.

Also near the cross is a crevice which is coated with a black material. Legend has it this is soot deposited by smoke from Padre La Rue´s furnaces inside the mountain when he mined the gold there. More than likely it is simply oxidation of minerals found in the limestone and the assessment acknowledges this when the subject is discussed.

There is much more in the report. It defines in great detail the affected environment and then devotes almost 40 pages to expected impacts and what mitigative measures the partnership plans. There also is a section on reclamation.

Is it a good report? I can´t answer that question. It has been sent to a long list of state and federal agencies which are required to comment on the assessment. In addition, the White Sands Environmental Office will evaluate it. Once that is done, we will have an idea of how complete the assessment is.

After all these experts have a crack at the report, it will be available to the public for comments.

According to Bob Burton, WSMR archaeologist, it will probably take until September to get all these reviews and commentary periods completed. He estimated they might have permission to dig by the end of September, if few changes are required.

---Interlaced with the historical information in these articles are statements of personal opinion by the author, Jim Eckles, which are not necessarily the official position of White Sands Missile Range or the U.S. Army---

This page was last updated on 2/13/2020 3:19 PM