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The Great South Dakota Copper Rush of '06-07

The time was right. The Minuteman Missile sites had long been abandoned, except for one facility kept as a historical tourist stop. The legal ownership of anything left behind on non-public land was now in the hands of the ranchers and farmers who own and work that land. The world market price of copper was at an all time high - high enough to warrant the cost of excavating the communication cables that spider-web across the fields of western South Dakota.

The boom and bust cycles of gold rushes through American history created flourishing communities, some of which since have became ghost towns. The Black Hills of South Dakota was the site of the great 1876 gold rush that created towns such as Lead, Rushville, Rockerville, Tilford, Custer and others.

During the later 20th century, the coal industry in the Gillette, Wyo., the Bowman, N.D., and other areas followed similar cycles. The westward migration of people and the growth of the railroads followed - and also in some ways created - these cycles.

Now the disarmament of the Cold War has heralded a copper rush to the plains of South Dakota. This rush, though, does not bring more people or railroads. It simply brings an economic boost to the settlers who have somehow stuck it out through the years.

The boom has hit and the bust is within sight. The copper and its market are already beginning to run out.

Mark Herberger is the Superintendent of the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site south of Interstate 90 Exit 131. According to him, there were 1,732 miles of communications cable throughout the Ellsworth Air Force missile field in western South Dakota.

The Hardened Intersite Cable System (HICS) connected 10 missile silos to a launch control facility which was at least six miles away from each silo. There were a total of 15 launch control facilities. Each facility was also connected by HICS to all the other facilities.

"When the military deactivated the sites in the early 1990s, all the cabling was 'sliced and diced' and parts taken out so that the HICS could not ever function again," said Herberger, "but, a majority of it was left in the landscape."

"Who could have thought the Cold War would have benefited the ranchers?" asked Bill Huebner, owner of Ace Steel and Recycling of Rapid City. "I would give a rough estimate that close to three million pounds of cable has already been pulled out of the ground. It's another source of revenue for the rancher, which I think is a fantastic idea. And, private enterprise can get it out far more economically than the government could."

Huebner said that he sets his prices on copper on a daily basis - a lot like the cattle market. He went on to say that last year's copper prices were the highest ever, even more than in 2004. "I believe next year's trend will be down, considering world-wide inventories," he said.

Ironically, the largest purchasers of copper are the United States and, now, China.

"The price has already dropped a fair amount," said Huebner. "I'm not recommending whoever has copper to sit on it; there is the beginning of a fundamental downward spiral on the price. Everything I have today is worth more than it will be tomorrow."

Herberger stressed, "Western South Dakota is a checkerboard of ownership: National Grassland, school land, private, and others. It is not lawful to get cable off of public land, but recycling can be done on private land."

HICS cables could be in a variety of diameters. With a rough estimate of 40 percent copper, the cable can be entirely recycled. A two-inch-diameter exhibit at the Minuteman site displays an exterior of an estimated eighth inch of vinyl or rubber-like insulation. The next layer is copper. The third "layer" is actually an air space that was to be pressurized.

"The system employed a double-walled cable, pnuematically pressurized, so that ruptures could be readily identified," according to the Histical Resource Study booklet. Monitoring was done with pressure gauges every so far which sent readings back to the facility.

The next four layers were another vinyl or rubber-type material, then a silver-colored metal, yet another layer of black rubber material, and finally a thick bundle of 30 multi-colored electical wires.

When the harvested cable comes in to the dealers, they coil it up and ship it out. They do not separate the copper from the insulation, though eventually everything in the cable is recycled. At one time, the entire cable which is around 40 percent copper, sold for $2.00 per pound.

Herberger noted that in the early 1960s when the missile system was being planned, a major task for the Air Force was negotiating the rights of entry for the military to survey and explore for the sites and cabling.