ST. GEORGE, Utah (AP) — The "Glitter Mine" lives up to its name, sunlight sparkling off a small mountain of selenite gypsum crystals alongside a dirt road just a short drive outside of St. George over the Arizona border.

It also lives up to its reputation as a popular destination for tourists.

Dozens of vehicles stack up along the road adjacent to the hillside. Crowded groups of visitors spill out, scramble along the rim of the mine and cast long shadows on the glinting crystal.

They carry hammers, pick axes and buckets. They scoop up the crystals in their hands and pile them into plastic bags.

Below the rim, inside the hollow pit where a crescent shaped wall has been exposed to show a bright white line of selenite, rows of children hammer away, egged on by parents and grandparents.

It's a picture-perfect family activity, everyone enjoying the outdoors, getting some exercise, learning a little geology and coming away with a bucket full of sparkling reminders.

But what they're doing is, technically, illegal.

A LONG HISTORY

The Glitter Mine has been popular with locals going back decades, and some of the middle aged visitors interviewed at the site by The Spectrum & Daily News said they could remember visiting the mine as youths.

The main feature, a healthy deposit of selenite, a transparent, crystalline form of gypsum, creates a natural landmark in the desert surroundings, and has inspired a long series of colloquial labels, from "Glitter Mountain" and "Sparkle Mountain" to "the Glitter Pit."

Because it is not mined continuously it has gained a reputation as an abandoned mine, with rumors of such spreading easily in recent years via the internet and on social media.

In interviews, many said they learned about the mine online while searching for things to do while in St. George. It shows up on a number of "things to do" blogs, outdoor destination websites and has been bandied about on social media.

One group said they'd learned about the mine while on a college trip. Because of its reputation, they figured the mine was abandoned. A number of other visitors echoed the same sentiment.

A local internet show featured the mine and advertised it as abandoned and open to the public. Some local hobbyist shops and tourism groups even handed out fliers advertising it.

AN ACTIVE CLAIM

Turns out all of those advertisements were wrong.

While located on federally-controlled public land, the Glitter Mine is actually still an active mining claim, with one owner holding exclusive rights to the minerals on the site via an agreement with the Bureau of Land Management.

Feller Stone, a family-owned business based in Veyo, has maintained a claim on the mineral rights to the site since 1992, paying an annual maintenance fee and meeting BLM requirements to maintain the site and agreeing to restore the natural features of the area once the mining is finished.

Technically, the owners could file charges against anyone caught taking material away from the site, said Rachel Carnahan, a public affairs officer with the BLM who has been working to spread the word about the mine.

It hasn't gotten to that point yet, but Feller Stone has filed for an "occupancy concurrence" with the agency as a first step toward restricting public access by building a fence around the site.

Before that happens, Carnahan said the BLM has been working with Feller, with area businesses and advocacy groups, with blogs and media to spread the word that while the Glitter Mine is on public land and is open to visit, the minerals at the site belong to someone else.

"We're really just focused on educating the public and trying to get the word out there that this is an active claim," Carnahan said, suggesting that many of the visitors to the site probably didn't know they were doing anything wrong.

A sign has been posted on-site, describing the mine as being an active claim. It indicates that digging and mining tools are prohibited, and that because of safety concerns visitors should not go into the mine pit.

"Please help the BLM with its mission to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations," it reads.

The sign was already in place during The Spectrum's visit to the site. While some reported that they would not dig after reading it, many others either didn't see the sign or ignored its instructions before taking picks and hammers into the pit.

COMMERCIAL COSTS

According to the BLM, the Glitter Mine deposit was formed when selenite was deposited as part of the Moenkopi Formation during the early Triassic about 250 million years ago.

Notable for its softness, the selenite can be scratched with a fingernail, unlike other transparent materials like quartz and types of mica.

Feller Stone sells the selenite as "Utah Ice," a product popular as a decoration, especially in fish aquariums.

The company pays a $155 annual fee on each of four claims in the area to the BLM and a matching fee to the state. There are also requirements to mine the area each year, to maintain the site and cover it up when finished. Between those costs, taking out bonds for reclamation and all the record keeping, it can cost thousands of dollars every year to keep a claim on each acre of mineral rights, said Russ Feller, one of the owners.

Feller said that for years he and others in the company didn't mind that the mine had become popular with visitors. Nor did it bother them if some kids wanted to pluck a few rocks off the ground and take them home.

But recently the visitation has picked up considerably, and on any given day there could be hundreds of people coming out. Many bring mining equipment and take away huge pieces of selenite, carrying it out by the bucketful.

Feller said he estimates the company has lost several tons of selenite to visitors over the past two years, an amount that could have been worth tens of thousands of dollars if sold commercially.

There are also safety concerns, and worries about liabilities should someone get hurt, Feller said.

"They're digging it out enough down there that it's starting to get concave on the slope, and that's not good," he said.

If the BLM's campaign to keep people from mining the area is successful, Feller said he wants to keep the site open and available for visitors. After all, it is fun to visit and it doesn't hurt if people take a couple of pieces home with them.

"If you want to take a couple of little pieces I think that's OK," he said. "We just want people to be respectful. Don't back your truck up to it and bring tools."

For the BLM, the uptick in visitation has come with a long list of other problems, including damage to the surrounding vegetation.

Carnahan said the Glitter Mine has posed some unique problems, but there is optimism that public outreach could strike the right balance, allowing visitors to see and enjoy the mine but encouraging them to respect the mining claim and not harm a local small business.

She said she's worked in recent weeks with Washington County, the Washington County, Utah and Mohave County, Arizona sheriff's offices, tourism offices, local cities, Dixie State University, local and state media, internet bloggers, rock shops and various other entities to spread the word.

"We're doing everything we can," she said.

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Information from: The Spectrum, http://www.thespectrum.com