The Heart (and Soul) of Gold
For geologist Jeffrey Wilson ’76, it takes more than just a pick and shovel to strike it rich. These days, gold exploration is as much about satellite imaging, computers, graduate degrees and, oddly enough, a good dose of international diplomacy.By David Dorion ’94
July 12, 2006
When asked about his profession, Jeffrey Wilson ’76 describes himself medicinally:
“What I do is like that of a doctor when he looks in the ears, nose and throat. We both explore.”
Explore. This is what Jeffrey Wilson does. He explores for signs, patterns and symptoms. But beyond the fact that Wilson is an exploration geologist and not an exploratory doctor, it is easily understood his concentration involves the Earth. Not to find what ails it, but more what the Earth can yield, which in this case is gold.
Whereas gold was once found via a crude map and even cruder manual labor, these days a modern gold explorer such as Wilson employs the assistance of GPS and 3-D terrain modeling computer software. Gone are the days when gold explorers were transported via mule or some other unsophisticated form of mobility. Today they get from one site to the next via plane, helicopter or at its least plush, a quadrunner.
But what has truly changed in modern gold exploration, and Wilson can attest to this with much aplomb of his worldly adventures, is that gold has gone international.
The American gold explorer’s efforts are no longer confined to local rivers and deserts. In Wilson’s case, he is more likely to be on a plane to Russia to check out a supposedly used-up mine, and after that, on another plane to South America to seek out rock formations and what precious metal they might yield.
Undoubtedly, this brings gold to a higher standard as geological exploration has not only technically evolved, it has also become an industry where one must be an ambassador.
Simply put, when the worst obstacles an old-time prospector faced were irate locals and yokels, Wilson is often in conciliation with entire governments and social structures. In a multi-billion dollar multi-nation industry, a person has to do more than just dig in the dirt. They have to negotiate first.
A Risky Business
Wilson, who earned a master’s in geological science from USC College in 1976, became quickly acclimated to the conditions of mineral exploration and its rigors.
While it can be hot, claustrophobic and dangerous work depending on the conditions in a given area, any fears were tamed in Wilson as a graduate student. His geology professor, Richard Stone, gave Wilson his first geological assignment. Being sent off to Death Valley in search of borate minerals tested the young student’s mettle for rock, stone and heat.
Wilson already possessed the basics for reading rock formations and understanding how gold can reveal itself. The question, however, was whether he had the strength and stamina to endure the near unworldly conditions. He did, and despite the overall oppressiveness of the Death Valley terrain, Wilson came away hooked. He also came away with enough profit to pay for the rest of his USC education.
Thirty-two years later, as vice president of exploration for Lincoln Gold Corporation of Vancouver, Canada, Wilson’s stories possess the stuff of modern-day legends.
He recounts the time a helicopter dropped him in the Sierra Madre, where, after stepping off the chopper’s landing skid, he found himself amidst a pile of spent AK-47 shells from an earlier shootout, most likely with Mexican federales.
On another occasion, while hammering on rock to obtain mineral samples, Wilson and his crew had to straddle bales of drying marijuana bound presumably for the United States.
In his career, Wilson has encountered purveyors in the illegal drug trade, dubious military and political representatives, as well as any number of unsavory characters attracted to gold and the fortune the mineral yields.
At times, Wilson has even had to enlist the help of translators and guides, understanding these individuals might be indirectly or directly connected with some form of suspicious social and political activities. But after many years spent in the pits, veins and deep caverns of the Earth, Wilson has found that heavily armed soldiers, shifty-eyed cops and gun-toting drug lords have become somewhat of an afterthought.
Wilson attests that once an explorer makes it past the marauders, pirates, corrupt cops, duplicitous workers and dubious translators, in more cases than not, mineral rich deposits will be found. And if all goes well, those deposits will eventually be mined, hopefully to fruition.
When searching for gold, Wilson drills core holes into rock to see how much, if any, of the commodity can be located there. But first, he thoroughly researches the surrounding area. When on a site, Wilson’s main concern is whether gold has been previously found there. If so, a crude theory can take root — if a previous strike has occurred in the vicinity, there stands a good chance more gold can be found.
The abandoned Pine Grove mine near Yerington, Nev., one of Lincoln Gold Corporation’s latest holdings, is a perfect example of Wilson’s belief that gold usually exists near other gold. Where past mining efforts in Pine Grove have yielded more than 240,000 ounces of gold, Wilson is all but certain more exists there.
“Old gold mines never die,” Wilson stated wryly. “They just hibernate.”
While history may not be on Wilson’s side, the seasoned explorer holds additional hesitation toward historical maps as well as the latest space-borne technology. Nothing in this business is entirely accurate.
Wilson would much rather rely on the capriciousness of luck and odds in gold exploration, knowing full well the axiom still holds true that it’s better to be a lucky gold geologist than a good gold geologist.
“If you put everything together, you still may not be right,” he said. “Maybe one in 100 prospects will make it to an advanced stage mineral project.”
Despite such dismal odds, gold mine investors still dredge through feasibility studies, environmental impact statements and cultural surveys.
“No one will start a mine when prices are low,” Wilson said. “At a low, you may break even or worse. But during good times, during a hit, you’re scrambling for production.”
When mining does begin, the local population is thoroughly tapped as a resource to the tune of 200, sometimes 300, individuals. And in nearly every gold mining scenario, they are paid high wages not just because of the physical hardship and danger of the work, but because of the eagerness of the mining company and its investors to pull up the treasure as soon as possible.
Terror in the Trove
When the maps are read, the geotechnical detective work complete, and the 3-D modeling supports what the geotechnical parameters suggest is the deepest one can dig, a scurrilous greed can brew, particularly, Wilson suggests, in Third World countries.
That greed arrives by way of threats, and in some cases, promises from local bandits and government officials.
Kidnappings and occasional murders are not uncommon in Wilson’s business, nor is being ripped off by a foreign political system.
Wilson, who has manned offices in Central and South America, Mexico, China, Russia, and Canada, suggests China and Russia are the most unabashedly unfair countries in which to operate a mining project.
“What we’ve done in Russia and China,” Wilson said, “is give a property owner or the government our money with a written and signed agreement that we have an ownership interest in a mine. But then they turn around and sell it to someone else.”
Wilson considers this a rather helpless situation that also occurs in Venezuela, Honduras and Indonesia, where mining laws change often and dramatically in an effort to expropriate mineral properties.
In Wilson’s view, Australia, Mexico, Chile and Canada are better at observing mining laws and rights.
In fact, when based simply on its geological and mining history which stretches far and long into the Yukon, Canada is the unequivocal hub of mining today.
But there are smaller players in this game, too.
As opposed to the few larger companies such as Wilson’s, junior mining companies exist by the hundreds. These companies continually seek financing as they embark on their next big discoveries. Those junior companies that make significant finds are often gobbled up by the larger mining companies. This generally leads to a win-win; the junior is well rewarded and the major company controls a new source of gold production.
“When times are good,” Wilson explained, “there are lots of junior explorers and renegades. When they’re tough, the companies seek safe harbor, and many disappear.”
Of course there is also the long-standing belief that whoever hits the vein first, wins the yield, which does tend to even the playing field. In short, it’s anyone’s game out there.
Calling All Geologists
Wilson’s work fills him. He feeds off of the exotic locales, the anticipation of finding a value-rich vein, and the impending social challenges he might face on any foreign soil.
But beyond that excitement and elation, Wilson is also fearful for the stability of his profession.
“Geologists 35 and younger are in high demand as are senior geologists 45 and younger,” he said.
Wilson believes this deficit in geologists is also due to low gold prices decimating the industry, thereby causing many to leave the profession.
To entice the younger set, he relates his work to what can easily be deemed as real Indiana Jones-type adventures. Or, he bluntly calls himself a “geo-detective.”
Wilson will even wax historic, assuming a teacher’s air as he recounts experiences in old Mexican, British and Spanish mines.
But if that doesn’t swing a person toward mineral geology, Wilson hopes the high pay will, or the potential profit from a large gold strike.
Wilson recalls a junior mining company that struck a deposit in the jungles of Ecuador. After investing a couple million dollars in exploration, the firm came away with more than $1 billion in profits after selling to a major mining conglomerate.
After much reflection, Wilson’s final truth about his work is the most alluring: “People can become rich.”
With a little bit of luck — or a great bit of it, they certainly can.
David Dorion is a 1994 graduate of the Master of Professional Writing program.