Gold may bury tribe's path to its past

Bush administration revives mine project in Southern California

  • Wilderness areas in the Southwest

    Diane Sylvain
 

INDIAN PASS, Calif. - To the Quechan Tribe of California's southern Mojave Desert, the trails at Indian Pass represent a portal to another time, a route to their very past. For 10,000 years, it is said, the Quechan have traveled the Trail of Dreams over Indian Pass to trade with neighboring tribes, to reach their ancestral birthplace at Avikwaame, a mountain near Needles, and to transcend the present world.

Located in California's remote southeast corner near the Colorado River, the area's jagged peaks and ironwood washes seem able to inspire dreams on their own. Many in the tribe are secretive about the area's special powers, but Lorey Cachora, a tribal archaeologist, recently told a group of supporters: "It has windows we can use to go into other worlds. There are dream trails we use to learn whatever we need."

For the Quechan, trouble lies on the path ahead. For seven years, Canada-based Glamis Gold Ltd. has sought to build a major open-pit gold mine at Indian Pass in Imperial County. Company officials estimate the site holds 3 million ounces of gold, worth about $820 million at present values. Glamis is staking its future on the project, which it has said could double the company's gold production.

The Glamis approval process, which has closely paralleled debate over the broader issue of federal hardrock mining regulations (HCN, 11/19/01: Mining reform gets the shaft), has become a focal point for establishing the Bureau of Land Management's authority to protect cultural and historic as well as environmental resources. In January, outgoing Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt denied the Glamis Imperial Mine, but on Nov. 23, Interior Secretary Gale Norton withdrew the denial. Actual construction still requires Norton's explicit go-ahead, but many Quechan fear that official approval is inevitable.

"For us, it's our past that's being destroyed," says Preston Arrowweed, a tribal singer. "They want to kill the area just for its gold. Is gold more important than religion?"

A trail to a legal nightmare

If the mine is approved, it would destroy much of the 1,571-acre Indian Pass site. The area contains 55 archaeological sites eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, including petroglyphs, ancient "sleeping circles" and the sacred trails. It is also bordered by two designated wilderness areas, Indian Pass and Picacho Peak, and is home to the threatened desert tortoise.

The cyanide heap-leach mine would include three huge pits where ore would be excavated, a large leaching facility, numerous waste-rock dumps, and new roads and utilities. The largest of the pits, at 880 feet deep, would not be reclaimed after mining.

The area proposed for mining is within the tribe's original territory, but it was claimed by the U.S. government a century ago and is now managed by the Bureau of Land Management. About 3,000 tribe members now live on a 45,000-acre reservation on the state border with Arizona.

Glamis first sought permits for the mine in 1994, and has sued the federal government twice to push it along. In 1998, tribal leaders voted unanimously to oppose the mine, and the President's Advisory Council on Historic Preservation recommended that the BLM quash the proposal. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt officially denied the mine Jan. 17, just three days before the Bush administration took office. It was the first time the federal government had ever rejected a major hard-rock mine proposal.

But in October, Interior solicitor William Myers wrote that the BLM did not have authority to deny the mine based on concerns about "undue impairment" of the sacred sites. With the new opinion in hand, Gale Norton reversed Babbitt's denial.

"It's a major backflip," says attorney Roger Flynn of the Western Mining Action Project, which represents the Mineral Policy Center and Sierra Club in the fight against the mine. "Their argument is one of the flimsiest I've ever seen."

A sweetheart deal?

Critics point to Glamis Gold's political connections to explain the policy reversal. Interior Secretary Norton's chief counsel, Ann Klee, is a former lobbyist for the American Mining Congress. One member of Norton's transition team, Steven Quarles, is a partner at Crowell & Moring, the law firm representing Glamis. Rebecca Watson, a former Crowell & Moring attorney, is the nominee for assistant secretary for land and minerals management, a position that would put her in charge of the BLM.

"A lot of it is pure politics," says Courtney Ann Coyle, attorney for the tribe. "It's no secret that the mining industry gave over $5 million to the new administration in the last election."

But David Hyatt, vice president of investor relations at Glamis, says the Clinton administration also played politics with the company's proposal.

"Clinton and Babbitt simply wanted to stop mining," he says. "It certainly wasn't to protect the environment. There are lots and lots of laws to protect the environment."

The project could still be sent back to the the regional BLM office for more review, and it could be years before mining begins. But Glamis officials believe the recent reversals by Norton and her staff make approval of the mine likely.

"I think what it means is that BLM will eventually rescind their negative plan of operations," says Hyatt. "We'll go through the permitting process again and there will be a permit issued at some point down the road."

Glamis also has a lawsuit pending in federal court to overturn Babbitt's denial of the mine. The tribe and the Mineral Policy Center recently won court approval to intervene as co-defendants in the lawsuit. The Western Mining Action Project's Flynn hopes that will prevent a "sweetheart deal" between the mine and the government. He and Coyle say the government's weak defense against the lawsuit and Norton's reversals are a strategy to aid the company.

"Basically, Interior is helping the company by doing the company's legal research," says Coyle.

But Hyatt says Glamis is willing to modify the project and work with the Quechan to protect historic sites.

"We would love to work with them and accommodate their concerns and try to come up with a project that's beneficial to everybody," he says. The company has already proposed moving some mine activities away from sensitive areas, but the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation said these measures ultimately "would do little to reduce the devastating impacts on the historic properties."

If Norton issues permits for the mine, the Quechan and their supporters vow to launch their own lawsuit against the government. Quechan Tribal President Mike Jackson Sr. says compromise simply isn't possible on a project that would destroy the area.

"We're trying to protect our sacred sites, and nobody seems to understand that," says Jackson. "They think the color of money is more important than our sacred sites.

Matt Weiser writes from Yucca Valley, California.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • David Hyatt, vice president of investor relations, Glamis Gold Ltd., 775/827-4600, www.glamis.com;
  • Mike Jackson Sr., Quechan Tribal president, 760/572-0213;
  • Roger Flynn, Western Mining Action Project, 303/473-9618.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Matt Weiser

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