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Tiffany & Co. Takes Its Gloves Off Over Mining Plan

The famed jewelry firm criticizes the U.S. Forest Service's decision to allow a silver and copper mine in a Montana wilderness area.

March 25, 2004|Elizabeth Shogren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Tiffany & Co., famous for its opulent jewelry, announced Wednesday that it was fighting to keep some precious metal in the ground.

Tiffany criticized the U.S. Forest Service's decision to approve in concept the development of the Rock Creek Mine under the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness Area in northwestern Montana's Kootenai National Forest.

The government's decision to allow a silver and copper mine under a pristine wilderness area in the Montana Rockies, Tiffany said, amounted to a bad use of a bad law. The 1872 mining law, Tiffany Chairman Michael J. Kowalski said in an open letter to Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth, provided a "perverse incentive for mining in wilderness areas, near scenic watersheds, around important cold water fisheries, and in other fragile ecosystems -- all of which are inappropriate for mineral development."

Environmental groups routinely protest the mining industry's intrusions on nature -- and, in the Bush administration, the government's frequent role on industry's side.

Doug Ward, a vice president of Revett Silver Co. of Spokane, Wash., which owns the claims on the mine, said Tiffany was "buying the dogma that's coming out of the local [environmental] groups."

Ward said that it was reasonable for people to be concerned about a new industrial facility being built beside and underneath a wilderness area, but that his company's plan to build one of the biggest silver mines in the world -- four square miles -- would not spoil the wilderness.

"The science shows we won't be polluting," he said.

Environmental groups argue that the agency's final development plan, released in June, will not do enough to protect the wilderness area, where high, rocky peaks, dense forests, crystal-clear lakes and icy streams provide habitat for endangered grizzly bears, bull trout and countless other animals.

The groups are challenging the mine development plan in state and federal courts.

"There are just some places where mines shouldn't go, and one of them is underneath a wilderness area," said Steve D'Esposito, president of Earthworks, an environmental group that focuses on hard-rock mining. "There are plenty of other places where mines can go."

But John McKay, a geologist for the Kootenai National Forest and one of the project's coordinators, said federal mining law gave Revett Silver Co. the right to mine the silver, even under the wilderness area.

The agency's development plan requires that the company go to significant lengths to mitigate the effect on the wilderness area and the endangered species that live there, he said.

For instance, the company would not be allowed to mine under the crystalline Cliff Lake, which environmentalists feared could be drained by mining.

Kowalski said Tiffany wanted to draw attention to Rock Creek Mine because it illustrated the need to reform hard-rock mining laws, which are based on the 1872 law and do not require copper, gold or silver miners to pay royalties to the government for the riches they take from federal land.

"We feel that the Rock Creek Mine is a serious threat to Cabinet Mountain wilderness and an important example of a need for mining reform in the United States," Kowalski said in an interview.

"We've always believed that we have an implicit brand contract with our customers -- they demand that Tiffany products, precious metals and gemstones be extracted in environmentally and socially responsible ways," he said.

Ward argues that his company plans to do exactly that at Rock Creek Mine. He said he hoped Tiffany would give him a chance to explain the plan and show how clean the project would be.

"I think if they took the chance to sit and listen, they would find we've got a very clean source of silver," Ward said. "We'd be a good source for them."

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