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California and the West

U.S. Backs Tribe, Rejects Gold Mine Proposal

Resources: Canadian firm has 30 days to appeal federal decision about its plans for an open-pit operation on a desert site that Indians view as sacred.

November 17, 2000|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — The federal government has sided with Native Americans trying to block a proposed 1,600-acre open-pit gold mine on public land in eastern Imperial County that the tribe considers sacred.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which controls the land, has tentatively rejected a Canadian mining company's bid, although the agency has given the firm 30 days in which to appeal.

The case is seen as a major test of a 1996 order by President Clinton that federal agencies show greater sensitivity to the "sacred geography" of Native Americans.

Before that order was issued, federal policy, governed by the Mining Act of 1872, leaned heavily toward granting permission for mining on public property whenever possible.

The Quechan Indian Nation asserts that the rocky, wind-swept area bounded by Picacho Peak, Pilots Knob and Muggins Peak contains the spirits of the Creator and two other mythological figures who passed through the region a thousand years ago. The area is mentioned prominently in Quechan songs.

Glamis Imperial Corp. General Manager Gary Boyle said the company expects the Bureau of Land Management and its parent agency, the Department of the Interior, to reject its bid and is prepared to file a federal lawsuit. An earlier lawsuit was thrown out of court in San Diego as premature.

"It's been obvious to the mining industry that the Department of the Interior has been trying to amend the Mining Act of 1872 without the benefit of legislation," Boyle said. "We have met all the rules for mining operations of this sort."

The site, 45 miles northeast of El Centro, is in the heart of a region that has seen gold mining for more than 100 years. Three of the state's most productive gold mines of the 20th century, the Picacho, Mesquite and American Girl mines, are nearby, all on federal land.

Courtney Coyle, a La Jolla attorney representing the Quechans, called the bureau's tentative ruling "an excellent step in the right direction. Contrary to the noises the mining company is making, BLM is on solid ground."

In its tentative decision, the bureau concluded that the mining operation "would result in significant adverse effects to prehistoric cultural resources, Native American traditional cultural uses and values, and visual resources."

Up to 130,000 tons of rock a day would be mined and deposited in piles. The gold would be coaxed from the ore by bathing mounds in sodium cyanide, a standard industry practice that federal regulators consider safe if done properly.

Glamis Imperial, part of a British Columbia company, had promised to buy 1,600 acres elsewhere in the desert to swap for the right to use the public land. Glamis also volunteered to move one of the ore heaps away from an area called the Trail of Dreams, where Quechans believe that they can communicate with spirits and receive visions.

The company has said there is scant evidence that the Quechans have used the site for religious observances in the last half-century. But Coyle branded that assertion "a very ethnocentric point of view" because it assumes that land must be visited or built upon to be spiritually important.

On its reservation, the tribe has a casino and an extensive farming operation. The mining pit would be about six miles from the populated part of the reservation.

Glamis Imperial has spent seven years and $14 million preparing to open the mine. The land bureau's current position, to be published today in the Federal Register, signals a shift for the agency, which more than two years ago appeared on the verge of approving the proposal.

Under Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, the bureau has become much tougher on requests by private concerns to use public land for grazing or mining. Babbitt has said that "in the old days, BLM was basically a doormat."

The Imperial Valley case has been reviewed by Interior Department attorney John Leshy, who concluded that the agency has authority under the 1980 California Desert Conservation Area plan to reject the mining request. Leshy's opinion was reviewed and approved by Babbitt.

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