HUNGRY VALLEY, Nev. — On this powdery brown expanse of Nevada desert, an Indian tribe, a Chicago mining company and environmentalists are struggling over a mother lode of kitty litter.
Led by Indians who have spent $200,000 to block two clay mines and a cat litter processing plant, opponents say the operation will mar the landscape, generating truck traffic, noise and dust.
The world's largest maker of cat litter, which secured a permit to mine on federal land, says it can solve those problems and believes it has hit pay dirt--clay that offers the ideal density, color and absorption needed to keep cats and their owners content.
But the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, enlisted by the Reno Sparks Indian Colony, believe they have struck pay dirt too: The mine has become the ideal target for their years-long campaign against a 19th century mining law.
Signed by President Ulysses S. Grant, the 1872 Mining Act was originally meant to encourage development of the West. But the law, which didn't levy mineral royalties or impose environmental responsibilities, is today considered by some a giveaway of valuable resources to the big mining companies that came to replace the lone prospectors of the Old West.
The law allows for mining on federal land if the mineral in question can be proved "uncommon."
And the clay of Hungry Valley was so deemed.
"If this were some metal needed for national security, that would be one thing," said John Singlaub, Carson City field office manager for the Bureau of Land Management, which is responsible for approving mining claims.
"But cat litter so our cats can poop in the house? That's the thing I think is really odd about this whole thing."
Odd, but not necessarily surprising, because cat litter is big business. Each year the 67 million American households with cats spend nearly $1 billion on it. Litter boxes, litter box liners--even self-cleaning litter boxes--have become part of the pet business. Even kitty litter, technically the trade name Kitty Litter, has become part of the American vocabulary.
The point man for the Oil-Dri Corp., which has proposed the mines, admits it sometimes sounds absurd to think such a brouhaha could be caused by cat litter. And telling your son you make cat litter, he said, is not the same as being a doctor or firefighter.
"You have to have a pretty thick skin, a sense of humor, in this business," said Bob Vetere, Oil-Dri's vice president and general counsel. "And especially after three years with this project."
The land from which the clay would be mined is owned by the BLM, which issues a permit. But it generally does so only after local and state governments with jurisdiction over related matters sign off.
Hungry Valley, about 10 miles outside Reno, consists of thousands of acres of treeless cocoa-brown dirt covered with a stubble of scruffy brush. On the tribe's 1,960 acres live about half the tribe's 1,000 residents. The proposed mines are about a mile away from houses.
For now, the federally owned acreage neighboring the tribe's land will remain unmined. And for that, members of the tiny Reno Sparks Indian Colony say they are thankful. But they are scanning the horizon, they say, knowing they have a tough fight ahead.
In late February, the Washoe County Board of Commissioners denied Oil-Dri Corp. a special-use permit for a processing plant it wants to build on 60 acres it bought next to the federal land. The BLM then withdrew its permit, because the company would need to propose a different way to process the litter.
One option would be building the processing plant on federal land beside one of the mines, which the law allows, Singlaub said. The other option would be to truck out the raw ore to an off-site processing plant.
Next week, the company will meet with BLM officials to discuss yet more studies. A new environmental impact report is needed to assess the effects of processing the litter on BLM land or trucking it away. The study is expected to take at least a year.
Leaders of the Reno Sparks Indian Colony--which originally formed in Reno but in the late 1980s spread to 1,960 acres it bought in Hungry Valley--feel triumphant.
They said they are protecting the way of life of their people, who have lived in the Nevada desert for thousands of years.
"In the beginning, we were on the outskirts of Reno, and the city encroached right up to our edge," said Diana Coffey, 42, among four generations living in the colony, which was formed around 1916. (A colony is a Nevada term for what would elsewhere be called a reservation.)
"I want my grandbabies to have this land, and a lot of this has remained untouched for thousands of years," Coffey said, a soft breeze blowing through the valley. "Our people never had written language, so everything was handed down from showing and telling in stories. That means it needs to be quiet."