Activists join forces against mining law

  • Crowfoot Mine in Nevada

    Philip M. Hocker photo/Mineral Policy Center

NEAR DURANGO, Colo. - Some of us at this conference for mining activists are feeling as if we've just been sent to summer camp. The main building of the former silver mining camp, with its long wooden picnic tables, picture-window view of San Juan National Forest and cafeteria meals, is making people nostalgic. "Every time I walk in here, I start to feel homesick," says Aimee Boulanger, the conference organizer from the Durango office of the Mineral Policy Center, who is moving on to Bozeman, Mont., in June to work for the group's Northwest office.

But no one is playing capture-the-flag on this May weekend. All the participants are fighting large corporations over proposed mines, working mines or badly reclaimed mines, and they've come from as far as California for inspiration. They're here to soak up technical and legal advice, hear organizing tips, and - maybe most importantly - to share their stories.

"As my mother-in-law says, you're nobody until somebody hates you," says Paul Robinson of the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, getting what might be the biggest laugh of the weekend. The 60 audience members all know they're somebody, since their opposition to hardrock mining brings on the wrath of ASARCO stockholders, Royal Gold board members and, more often than not, members of their own communities. They are also all up against a less personal opponent: the 1872 General Mining Law, which deems mining the "highest and best use" of federal public lands.

When Bill and Linda McNeill, a retired couple from Mammoth Lakes, Calif., explain how their fight against gold exploration in the area gained the support of their county commission and even the sympathy of the local chapter of People for the USA (HCN, 4/13/98), Marianna Aue expresses disbelief: "A sympathetic county commission!" As a staff member of the Western Shoshone Defense Project in northern Nevada, she says that's unimaginable.

Three activists are here from Nevada, a state that would be second on the list of gold-producing countries if it suddenly gained nationhood, and all of them say the negative impacts of mining in Nevada are ignored - by state and local governments, by environmentalists, and, as they take pains to point out, by High Country News.

"To say that Nevada is a sacrifice area is just not acceptable," says Aue in her presentation to the group.

Others say the effects of mining are ignored where they live, too. Lorey Cachora, an archaeologist and member of the Quechan (pronounced kwitz-an) tribe from Yuma, Ariz., talks about a little-known proposal from Glamis Imperial Corp. for a 1,500-acre open-pit gold mine in Southern California's Imperial County. The proposed Mojave Desert site, which includes an ancient trail system and more than 200 examples of rock art, is sacred to the Quechans, says Cachora. While it might be possible to reduce the effects of mining on wildlife and other natural resources through mitigation, he says, the mining company can't hope to replace the site's cultural significance.

Surprisingly, the mood here is upbeat. Gold prices are low. Copper prices are low. And in many parts of the West, the downturn in metals prices combined with well-timed and well-organized community opposition to hardrock mining - such as the McNeills' - has made companies delay their projects or take them elsewhere.

Kay Howe from Moab, Utah, has helped delay Summo Corp." s Lisbon Valley copper mine (HCN, 6/23/97). Richard Perez and Elizabeth Winter from Picuris Pueblo in northern New Mexico report that Summo is backing away from its plans for a copper mine on federal land next to the pueblo. Jon Tate, who seems to enjoy standing out in this crowd as a right-leaning gamebird hunter, helped to organize a successful effort to stop a land exchange between ASARCO and the Forest Service in the copper-rich Santa Rita Mountains of southern Arizona (HCN, 2/16/98).

Steve D'Esposito, the new president of the 10-year-old nonprofit Mineral Policy Center, arrives from Washington, D.C., on Saturday to talk about a new national network of mining activists. But the gathering, which has spent a day and a half absorbing other people's stories, broadens the discussion. Buoyed by the success stories and camaraderie of the weekend, some participants urge the Mineral Policy Center to work on international projects.

"As soon as we defeat these mines, they're going to move to another country where the price of business is not so high," says one activist. Others nod. Then Skip Edwards from Friends of Westwater - a group opposing gold mining in the Colorado River canyon - voices an objection.

"This reminds me a little of my house," he says, "where I start a lot of projects that I can never finish. We need to work on defeating (the) 1872 (Mining Law). That's the worst thing." There's agreement on this, too.

Perhaps the best reminder of the work ahead comes from Manuel Pino, a longtime anti-nuclear activist from the Acoma Pueblo in central New Mexico. He's a little late, having taken a wrong turn and gotten stuck on a rough Forest Service road with his family. He jokes about it - -Our people have always been closer to nature," he says - but then gets serious, launching into a history of the devastating effects of the uranium mining boom in the 1950s on the Indians of New Mexico and Arizona. He reminds the audience that although new mining proposals are defeated from time to time, the more than half-million abandoned mines in the West pose equally great dangers to human health and rural communities.

Thanks to an education program started by the Acoma Pueblo, he says, "children are finally starting to understand why their grandparents are sick." He says tribes are making progress toward gaining compensation for the cancer and other medical problems endemic in their communities.

But, he adds, members of the Navajo tribal government continue to support a new uranium mine on tribal trust land near Crownpoint, N.M.

Throughout the weekend, these activists reminded themselves that any victory, even a small one, needs to be celebrated. And they do celebrate, with a bluegrass band and an impromptu sing-along of "Clementine" on Saturday night. With the deck stacked against them, they say, it's worth remembering that a year's delay or even a well-attended public meeting might turn into a more lasting success. They also tell each other that they have to keep slogging through the regulatory morass, trying to win again and again. An open-pit gold mine, they say, only has to win once.

Michelle Nijhuis is a High Country News reporter.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at