The Bureau of Land Management might just say "no."
For years, critics have blasted a proposed open-pit gold mine on public land in southeastern California, arguing that the Glamis Imperial Corp. project would destroy both Native American sacred sites and habitat of the threatened desert tortoise (HCN, 8/2/99: Weighing artifacts against gold). After a national advisory council agreed with some of these concerns, the California BLM office asked the Interior Department to clarify the agency's authority over the proposal. On Jan. 14, Interior said the agency can turn down mines that harm the environment or cultural resources.
The decision doesn't create new regulations, says California BLM staffer Jan Bedrosian. Instead, it states that existing environmental laws can sometimes trump the 1872 General Mining Law, the act that calls hardrock mining the "highest and best use" of public lands. "We have the authority to decide which should take precedence," she says.
The site of the proposed 1,571-acre mine is at the intersection of several ancient trails of religious importance to the Quechan Indian tribe, and more than 200 examples of rock art have been found in the area. The Bureau of Land Management has found several sites worthy of the National Register of Historic Places, and it protected the land as a "limited-use area" in 1980.
"We're obviously very pleased with this decision," says Courtney Coyle, an attorney for the tribe. "But the real question is, why has this mine gotten as far as it has?"
Denise Jones of the California Mining Association defends the Imperial proposal, citing its strong environmental protections. Interior, she says, is "rewriting property-rights protections that are included in the Mining Law." She says she expects years of litigation if the proposal is denied.
But mine opponents say the law is on their side. "If the (Bureau of Land Management) approves this mine, they'll be sitting ducks for our lawsuit," says Roger Flynn, an attorney with the Western Mining Action Project in Boulder, Colo. "There's no legal way to do it."