At 5,600 feet, Buckhorn Mountain rises above the Okanogan Highlands, its fir and larch forests extending past Washington state and into Canada. It is not truly wild since a few roads cross it and mining claims were worked long ago, but it has not been clear-cut or pocked by the kinds of mines that leave enduring scars.
Now the mountain has new
significance: It has set off a struggle over the future of hardrock
mining on public land in the United States. That struggle seems to
have taken almost everyone by surprise.
few weeks ago, the Texas-based Battle Mountain Gold Co., along with
its partner, Crown Resources, was well on its way to digging a
116-acre open-pit gold mine on the flanks of Buckhorn Mountain,
where a deposit of gold worth almost $500 million lies buried. The
company had run the regulatory gantlet and then fended off three
lawsuits filed by the Colville Confederated Tribes and the
nonprofit Okanogan Highlands Alliance (HCN,
So, while the alliance had not given up
hope of stopping the mine at the last minute, the company was
finally ready to start construction, eight years behind
Then, on March 25, the federal government
told Battle Mountain Gold that it was halting the Crown Jewel Mine.
In a five-page letter, the departments of Agriculture and Interior
wrote that the mine's waste rock piles would sprawl across more
land than the 1872 Mining Law allows.
law, Interior says, the company's 10 public land mining claims
would entitle it to a maximum of 50 acres in mill-site claims, or
five acres for each mining claim, rather than the 585 acres (117
mill sites) it had claimed. Mill-site claims are sought for storing
waste rock and for siting the giant steel vats the Crown Jewel Mine
would use to leach gold from crushed ore.
the law was written 127 years ago, the technology of the day
allowed for the mining of only the richest ore deposits, and mines
weren't large by today's standards. But with the advent of large,
open-pit copper and gold mines in the early 1980s, mining companies
can profitably mine and refine ore containing as little as
five-hundredths of an ounce of gold per ton. This produces far more
waste rock than the authors of the mining law ever imagined and the
mill site limitations effectively ban large, open pit mines like
the Crown Jewel.
The Bureau of Land Management
has ignored this proviso in a sort of gentlemen's agreement with
the mining industry. But with the Crown Jewel Mine, the Department
of the Interior announced that it intends to start enforcing the
law, which allows one 5-acre mill site for every
The first sign that strict enforcement of
the law was on the way came in 1997, when Interior issued a legal
memorandum to one of its agencies, the BLM. This statement, signed
by Solicitor John Leshy and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt,
pointed out that the mill site provisions of the 1872 Mining Law
"have fallen totally out of step with the times ..."
The mining industry immediately criticized the
11th-hour mining law interpretation as bad government. Why, they
wondered, hadn't the government issued this ruling before Battle
Mountain Gold had spent almost a decade and $80 million pursing a
raft of permits? (See column by Jon Margolis on facing
"It's just too late in the process to
change the rules," says Richard Harris, a Reno, Nev., mining
The Department of Interior argues that
the industry has known about the provision in the law for many
In Washington state and across the West,
anti-mining activists rallied around what they called the first
chink in the impenetrable armor of the archaic mining law.
"I've always believed this mine was against the
law," says David Kliegman, a 46-year-old woodworker who leads the
Okanogan Highlands Alliance. He adds that the victory, however
sweet, may be temporary because what began as a grassroots fight in
an obscure mountain range has made its way to the halls of
"Actually, we've got a much bigger
fight on our hands: Now we're up against the National Mining
Association," Kliegman says. "But we definitely knocked them a good
It's a national
The new interpretation of the powerful
century-old law is the latest effort to reform the nation's mining
industry. It follows Interior Secretary Babbitt's failed attempts
in 1993 to reform the Mining Law by requiring mining companies to
pay 12 percent royalties on the value of the minerals it mined on
public lands. The Department of the Interior also tried to impose a
strict reclamation-bond requirement on mines on public land, but
the mining industry convinced a court to void the
Babbitt has had some success. By
charging a $100 maintenance fee on all mining claims beginning in
1993, the Interior Department convinced miners to drop 500,000
mining claims. About 500,000 remain. The department also withdrew
Montana's Rocky Mountain Front from all mineral development and
bought out mineral rights at the controversial New World Mine near
Yellowstone National Park.
Though an overall
approach to amending the 1872 law has failed, says Alan Septoff of
the Washington, D.C.-based Mineral Policy Center, "We've been
successful in nibbling around the edges." Now, many hope the recent
mill site interpretation will force the industry to admit that the
mining law needs reform: For the first time, a law written by
miners, for miners, has failed
industry attorney Richard Harris says that local BLM offices have
regularly approved mine projects that violated the one mine
claim-to-one mill site ratio. BLM policy manuals written as
recently as 1991 state, "There is no limit to the number of mill
sites that can be held by a single claimant."
While this ignores the ratio spelled out in the
1872 Mining Law, Harris says it is a "practice widely recognized
and widely respected."
"In effect, the
government entered into a contract. Now, with Mr. Leshy's
one-to-one ratio, that contract has been broken," Harris says. "Mr.
Babbitt and Mr. Leshy have been unable to enact their mining
reforms through the front door and they reverted to what I call
back-door practices. I see this as part of a larger strategy on the
part of the secretary of the Interior to restrict and minimize
mining development in the United States."
administrative ruling is expected to affect three other open-pit
mines now planned in Arizona and California: The Yarnell gold mine
near Yarnell, Ariz.; the Carlota copper mine near Miami, Ariz.; and
the Imperial Project gold mine in the desert of California's
Flynn says that even with the
new tool, he'll limit his battles to mines in the works. "I have no
intention of using the mill-site decision on an existing mine. I
can't guarantee that others won't," he says. "We have no intention
of shutting down the mining industry."
mining industry representatives say the one-to-one rule took them
by surprise, the Glamis Imperial Corp. seemed well prepared. The
company remapped its claims, "slicing and dicing" 46 claims into
187 claims. Many of these redrawn claims measure less than a half
acre in size. Environmentalists call this a ploy to steal public
Roger Flynn, who is representing the San
Diego chapter of the Sierra Club in a fight over the Imperial
Project mine, says the Glamis Imperial Corp. strategy won't work
and promises to sue Interior if the mine is allowed to
"Why would Congress put in a mill site
limit if you could file a bunch of itty-bitty claims? Obviously,
that's not what Congress wanted."
that the companies have long known about the potential conflict
between the mining law and the acreage limits on public land.
"The mining company attorney should have known
this. They never thought that (the Interior Department) would use
it against them," Flynn says. "They were arrogant."
Dustin Solberg is an
HCN assistant editor.
* Roger Flynn, Western Mining Action
* Tim Ahern, U.S.
Department of the Interior, 202/208-6416.