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There're diamonds in them there hills. But residents have doubts about commercial mining

On a gently plowed hillside beneath a warm sun, dozens of men, women, and children sift and shovel through the dark Arkansas earth. Some, using picks, pans, and strainers, are regulars to the 40-acre field. Others are first-time visitors, tourists drawn by the prospect of making that one big find.

``My husband thinks I'm crazy,'' says a woman from Dallas, who wears white plastic trash bags to keep the mud off her shoes. Holding in one hand a carefully selected sampling of worthless rocks, she adds, ``But really, what woman could pass up a chance to find the Hope Diamond?''

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The field is the principal drawing card in Crater of Diamonds State Park. It is a very average park, save for one very unaverage feature: It contains the world's only deposit of kimberlite, or diamond-bearing igneous matter, open to the public.

Since the park opened in 1972, visitors paying a $3 daily digging fee have taken home nearly 10,000 gem-quality diamonds with a cumulative weight surpassing 2,300 carats. In April two brothers from Illinois found a 7.95-carat diamond worth perhaps $20,000.

At least one Dallas diamond merchant has a serious eye on the park for commercial mining. Jean-Raymond Boulle formerly worked with De Beers, the South African diamond monopoly, ``from production in Africa to marketing in London,'' as he says. Backed up by some of the world's foremost geologists in gem production, as well as some state geologists in Arkansas, Mr. Boulle believes prospects are good the mine can become one of the world's largest diamond producers.

``It's not by accident that diamonds have been found in Arkansas since the early 1900's,'' says Boulle, who has also leased Arkansas land owned by International Paper Company for possible exploration. ``It's a kimberlite province all right.''

But the prospect of commercial mining has local people torn between the promise of new jobs and the fear of disrupting their bucolic, if somewhat economically depressed, life. Murfreesboro, the town of 1,900 that serves the park's 85,000 annual visitors, is located in the Arkansas ``nowhere,'' about 120 miles southwest of Little Rock. But it's a beautiful nowhere of green hills and small streams that some residents believe would change for the worse if commercial mining got under way.

After a farmer first found a diamond here while prospecting for gold in 1906, a series of commercial ventures before World War II failed to bring to the area the promised economic success and world renown. In addition, some residents point to other mining operations in the state that after a few years left the local community with little more than a scarred landscape.

``I have very strong doubts that they can mine here commercially while we operate as a state park,'' says Jim Cannon, the park's superintendent. ``The noise and the dust alone wouldn't make camping too pleasant, and who can say what condition the park would be left in once the mining was completed?''

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Unlike their Texas neighbors, whose risk-taking is legendary, Arkansans, as one native puts it, are generally ``risk-averse.'' And in Murfreesboro, one runs up against the opinion that, while the town may not have a lot, at least it has its diamond mine.

``To some of us conservative thinkers, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,'' says Frank Bray, president of the Murfreesboro Industrial Development Council. In a town whose businesses, many of which contain the word ``diamond' in their name, reap profits from increased tourist traffic every time a sizable diamond is found, there is real concern about the potential for adverse publicity.

``If they start to mining and then it fails,'' Mr. Bray adds, ``then all the credibility that's been established will go down the drain.''

But there are indications that the local attitude is changing. The town's economy has never fully rebounded from the demise of the local lumber industry in recent years. More residents now appear ready to consider opening the park to commercial mining.

``The young people especially seem to be for it,'' says Karen Welch, editor of the weekly Murfreesboro Diamond. ``They're the ones whose ears perk up any time you start talking jobs.'' Boulle says that if core samples showed a diamond content sufficient to warrant commercial production, the mine could directly employ 350 people for up to 50 years.

``I think we're progressive enough these days that we're not just going to stick our heads in the sand and let the world go by,'' says Clifton Crews, president of the local chamber of commerce.

``You've always got a few who never want to deviate from the old set up,'' Mayor Arlie Boatright adds. ``That's fine, but you can be left at the station that way.'' Both men say the community is ready to consider mining proposals -- as long as the park would remain open.

Ultimate authority over the park rests with the state. Jo Luck Wilson, director of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, says a cabinet-level advisory committee to be named by Gov. Bill Clinton could begin studying the mining issue before the end of the year.

Ms. Wilson believes it is in the state's best interest to ``determine once and for all whether the mine has the commercial potential some say it has.''

Noting that a 1981 diamond proposal from Anaconda Mineral Company was turned down by the state for insufficient environmental and recreation safeguards, Wilson praises Boulle for working hard to address those concerns in his proposal. She credits his occasional meetings with Murfreesboro residents for helping shift local attitudes.

Boulle says he could mine without hindering the park or its amateur miners, who stick pretty much to ``surface scratching.'' He adds that his proposal could actually boost tourism by allowing visitors to view an operating diamond mine.

``As unprogressive as it may sound to some, allowing the Crater of Diamonds to continue operating as a park remains our top priority,'' says Wilson, who adds nevertheless that she ``sees a distinct possibility of some mining going on there within the next few years.''

As for Jean Boulle, he says he's aware of the skepticism in Arkansas, not to mention in some diamond circles around the world. But he points out that a decade ago the world was ``sniggering'' about plans for industrial and gem-quality diamond mining in western Australia.

``As of this year,'' he says, ``Australia will have the biggest diamond-producing mine in the world.''

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