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Idaho: walking boom-bust tightrope

Boom town to ghost town: It's a cycle familiar to mineral-rich Western states since the 1849 Gold Rush. In Idaho, which has seen its share of boom and bust, Gov. John V. Evans is having to deal with both extremes right now. In a recent interview, he explained that while one mine is being shut down in the far northern part of the state, another is opening in central Idaho.

Since August, Governor Evans has been trying to find a buyer for the Bunker Hill silver mine and smelter in Kellogg. Failing that - and prospects seem bleak - he hopes to at least cushion the shock of a pending shut down by the present owner, Dalton Resources and Chemical Corporation of Houston.

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Meanwhile, near the little town of Challis (pop. 800), the Cypress Mining Company has 1,500 workers preparing the way for an open-pit molybdenum mining operation that eventually will employ some 500 to700 workers.

In what the governor sees as a model of corporate responsibility, Cypress is working closely with state and local officials to ease the effects of the sudden influx of three times as many workers as the town population; new demands on housing, school, water supply, and other facilities; and the environmental impact of the operation.

Back in Kellogg, matters have not been going that smoothly. Ironically, a Reagan administration decision to sell part of the federal government's silver stockpile over the next few years coincided with Evans's attempt to find a buyer for the Bunker Hill mine. ''We tried everything to get it stopped, but couldn't, '' said Evans. With the price of silver slipping to $9 an ounce and interest rates high, prospective buyers have held off. Another factor: Bunker Hill, besides producing 20 percent of all silver mined in the US, also yields lead and zinc. But automakers are principal users of those metals, and their sales slump has affected that market. The 4,000-foot mine, in operation for almost 100 years , will be shut down by next spring.

In recent weeks, the governor and his staff have been putting in place the means to cushion the shock of unemployment for some 2,100 people and the loss of the major source of income for the community of 3,417. So far, the company has not come forth with any compensation or severance pay plan for the mine workers. Mine officials could not be reached for comment, but one source said there was talk of severance pay for salaried workers at Bunker Hill. Governor Evans still has some hope the owners will be able to provide something for other employees.

The impact of the Bunker Hill closure will extend beyond Idaho's borders, Evans points out. Spokane, Wash., often called the ''capital of northern Idaho, '' will be adversely affected by the loss of silver mine payrolls.

Some Western states in which coal, oil, and other resources are being exploited at an increasing rate have enacted substantial severance taxes - recently upheld in federal court - to make sure their people will have something left after the drillers and miners have gone. Evans says that kind of tax is being considered by Idaho, but the state is reluctant to impose severance taxes when the prices of the hard rock minerals being mined are so low. The result could be even more mines shut down.

There is no overall provision by the US government or private industry - other than unemployment compensation and welfare - for workers affected by closings such as those at Kellogg. The Western states have been working together to find ways of mitigating the adverse effects of the boom-bust cycle. A regional group called the Overthrust Industrial Association (''Overthrust'' refers to the mineral rich geological formation known as the Overthrust Belt) has been working on ways to assist local governments caught in such situations. The task is expected to eventually be taken over by a group not yet active - the Western Regional Council.

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