One paved road leads in and out of Rochford, a remote Pennington County town at the center of a heated debate over a proposal to mine for gold in a pristine part of the northern Black Hills.

With permits in hand, a Canadian prospecting company has begun drilling exploratory holes just south of Rochford to test its theory that potentially historic quantities of top-grade gold may lie beneath the ponderosa pines and rocky hillsides.

Mineral Mountain Resources of Vancouver foresees a future for Rochford in which a mining company could remove millions of ounces of gold, putting it on scale with the famed Homestake Mine that operated in nearby Lead. Company officials say they can explore safely and that mining can be done underground with minimal impact.

But the drilling and potential for mining have set off a wave of opposition. Environmentalists and Native Americans fear the drilling and mining could destroy a secluded section of the Black Hills, harm fish and wildlife, and foul Rapid Creek, which provides fresh water to Rapid City.

Protesters have marched in opposition to drilling, and three members of the Cheyenne River Tribe filed a lawsuit to block further exploration. In remarks to federal officials, Oglala Sioux Tribe President Scott Weston warned of "a war" with "bloodshed" if drilling continues.

Quiet town, loud protests

In many ways, Rochford, population 8, epitomizes the northern Black Hills. The crisp air smells of pine. Bicyclists dodge deer on the Mickelson Trail, and fly rods are more or less mandatory.

There's no cellphone service or gas station. The only touristy touch is the iconic burger-and-beer hangout of Moonshine Gulch Saloon.

For a growing cadre of environmentalists and Native Americans, it's unthinkable the pristine area could be considered for a huge gold mine.

"There's absolutely no reason to destroy this," said Rochford resident John Hopkins. "It's beautiful, it's sacred, it's irreplaceable."

In company materials online, Mineral Mountain said the claim could become "another Homestake," one of the world's most productive gold mines and an enterprise that shaped Lead and Deadwood, just 20 miles north of Rochford.

The reference may have helped raise money for exploration, but the mention of Homestake heightens opponents' fears. They envision another open-pit gold mine like Homestake's roughly square-mile, 1,250-foot deep pit in downtown Lead.

Mineral Mountain CEO Nelson Baker dismisses that idea. Baker said the depth and type of gold he expects to find does not lend itself to an open cut mine but to an underground operation.

"There's no way we would consider putting an open pit in Rochford," Baker said.

However, Baker cannot guarantee what another mining company could do if Mineral Mountain sold its claims, though in an email he stated: "I assure you that, even if we turn this project over to a third party, there is no economic reason to consider an open pit scenario."

Homestake produced 40 million ounces of gold, created thousands of jobs and helped build the Lead-Deadwood region. It also harmed the environment during its 126-year history.

According to a 1971 study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Homestake discharged 312 pounds of cyanide and 2,700 pounds of suspended solids daily into a tributary of Whitewood Creek. The agency estimated more than 270,000 tons of arsenic were discharged. In 1981, an 18-mile section of Whitewood Creek was declared an EPA Superfund site that took 15 years to remediate.

About seven miles east of Lead, the Gilt Edge Mine remains one of only two EPA Superfund sites in South Dakota. The EPA and state of South Dakota have spent more than $105 million over the past two decades to clean up arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper and lead contamination present when Canadian-based Brohm Mining declared bankruptcy and abandoned the mine in 1999.

Mineral Mountain has a blemish of its own in the Black Hills. The firm hired a contractor to drill exploratory holes near Keystone in the Central Black Hills from 2012-15. In November 2012, a torn liner at the drill site leaked a small amount of bentonite and other drilling fluids into Battle Creek. The spill was quickly contained and caused no significant damage, according to the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

The spill was a rare event for Mineral Mountain, and the company changed contractors and began using a sturdier liner, Baker said.

Concerns over the potential for contamination of Rapid Creek and groundwater have drawn the ire of groups that fight to protect water in western South Dakota. Their cause gained steam when a retired mining executive released a report showing how water contaminated near Rochford could flow to Pactola Reservoir, a source of fresh water in Rapid City.

The report by George "Duff" Kruse was titled "Save Rochford & Rapid Creek" and spawned a Facebook page of the same name. The report contained frightening photos of U.S. mining disasters paired with the phrase, "Is this what we want to happen to Rapid Creek and Rochford?"

Several Native American tribes are also fighting the project, including the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, whose members filed a lawsuit in Pennington County court in February to stop it. The suit alleges Mineral Mountain illegally transferred its existing gold mining permit to a newly created South Dakota affiliate.

Tribal members say the proposed mining area is a few miles from the Pe Sla lands, a sacred Sioux site near Deerfield Lake. Four Sioux tribes paid $9 million for roughly 2,300 acres of land at Pe Sla, which means "Heart of Everything."

About 50 people, many Native American, marched in protest at Rochford in February. Hopkins, the mine opponent, said the law enforcement presence was heavy.

Forest Service spokesman Scott Jacobson said Forest Service officials have met with tribal leaders to hear their concerns and explain details of the permit application to drill on public land, which remains under review. The agency has received more than 100 public comments.

"Our eyes are wide open," he said. "We're just trying to make sure there's dialogue and conversation."

Authorities may have reason to be concerned given the lengthy environmental protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota in 2016, and the recent comment by tribal president Weston.

"You will have war if this happens," Weston told Forest Service officials, according to a report in the Native Sun News Today newspaper. "There will be bloodshed because we have to stand up for our children and our grandchildren."

Firm promises safety

Mineral Mountain Resources has purchased mining claims to hunt for gold on about 12 square miles. The firm hired Colorado-based First Drilling to drill as many as 120 test holes up to 4,000 feet deep at a dozen sites south of Rochford.

Mineral Mountain, which paid $250 for a state permit and put up a $20,000 bond, is pumping water for drilling from Rapid Creek east of Rochford.

During the first phase of drilling, Mineral Mountain plans to sink nine holes about 4 inches wide on private land to obtain core samples. Each phase of drilling, if successful, may lead to further drilling. Once the drilling is complete, each hole will be capped.

The firm filed an application with the U.S. Forest Service to drill up to 21 exploratory holes on public land. That application is under review.

According to its temporary water use permit, the firm can use roughly 300,000 gallons a day up to a total of 1.8 million gallons through May 1, and then must reapply. Drilling takes place 24 hours a day, and water is recirculated to optimize use and eventually deposited in an environmentally safe area, Baker said.

Mineral Mountain is led by Baker, a 75-year-old Canadian who obtained an environmental engineering degree from South Dakota School of Mines in Rapid City in the late 1960s. Baker said he has been involved with exploration of 1,000 potential mine sites. Mineral Mountain formed in 2010 and has conducted 20 mineral explorations, he said.

Baker said his company is committed to safety, following state and federal regulations "to a T," and to protecting the environment. He said the firm has already invested about $7 million to prospect in the Black Hills over the past five years, including about $2 million to buy mine claims near Rochford. The firm paid $500,000 to purchase the former Standby Gold Mine.

The firm also spent $500,000 for a high-resolution aerial study of the Rochford topography that indicated the likely presence of gold, and it makes more than $100,000 in annual payments to the state of South Dakota to keep its claims registered.

Early indicators show the Rochford area holds substantial gold deposits, Baker said. He said the Homestake Mine likely would have mined the area if the price of gold had remained sustainable and if the company had not run into financial difficulties. But with gold prices hovering around $1,335 an ounce, exploration is worth the cost, he said.

If an economically feasible amount of gold is found, a major international mining company, such as Goldcorp of Canada or Newmont Mining of Colorado, would likely buy the rights to establish the mine, Baker said. However, it could take more than a decade and upward of $300 million to make it a reality.

But as the son of a prospector whose son, Brad, is also a prospector with Mineral Mountain, Baker believes the gold is worth pursuing.

"All my life, I've been exploring and looking for mineral deposits," he said, "because for me it's a passion."

Baker said that zeal extends to his firm's commitment to follow all applicable regulations and to the protection of natural resources, including returning drilled areas back to their natural state.

Battle will go on

The promises do not satisfy Rochford resident John Hopkins, who owns a home and horse ranch on a U.S. Forest Service road that could someday carry significant mining equipment traffic.

Hopkins is a 72-year-old retired Army major who served in the Vietnam War and has lived all over the world. He chose Rochford to spend his final days due to the beauty, remoteness and ability to ride his horses with ease.

"The Hills are just full of life," he said.

Hopkins is aware of Rochford's role in mining history, which includes numerous small abandoned gold mines and hundreds of small claims. On a recent drive through the exploration area, Hopkins pointed out a ramshackle wooden stamp house used by miners in the late 1800s. Those were smaller operations with less capacity to do major damage, he said.

He regularly traverses the area with a camera and notebook to document suspected permit violations.

"I'm not an environmentalist to speak of, but this one has me up in arms," he said. "They're going to get 60 million ounces of gold ... and then they're going to take off because they're from Canada," he said.