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Alaska’s Billion Dollar Mountain

The story of one man who used a little persuasion—and a lot of luck—to win the rights to millions of tons of rare earths

The helicopter took off, the wooden city of Ketchikan slowly receded, and the mountainous rain forest approached. It was an unseasonably warm day in February 2007. Through circles of moisture on the windows the passengers watched the choppy gray ocean off the southern Alaska coast roll by underneath. In the back seat, Jim McKenzie, a 45-year-old Canadian entrepreneur with a swoop of salt-and-pepper hair, tried to relax as he stared out the window with the eyes of an excited 12-year-old. On the green edge of the horizon was the mountain he’d bought the mineral rights to, sight unseen.

Beside him sat Harmen J. Keyser, the geologist who first told him about the mountain. Keyser, a dour, blond 6-foot-6 Dutchman, was now a vice-president of McKenzie’s company. Beside the pilot sat the man who sold the rights to the mountain, a 78-year-old prospector who’d waited 50 years to make the deal.