Bush’s War on Sacred Lands

The Bush Roll-back Threatens Native Sites

World Reports

New Mexico - There is a war being waged by George W. Bush and the US government that comes complete with racial profiling, divide-and-rule tactics, media orchestration and a total disregard for the damage to the environment and inhabitants of the land. This war is not taking place in Afghanistan or Colombia, however, but on the homelands and sacred sites of American Indians.

The 500-plus year war against America’s First Nations intensified when Bush and Secretary of Interior Gale Norton initiated a series of directives designed to reverse the environmentally protective policies enacted by former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

Taking advantage of the present recession fears, “energy-crisis” scares and anti-terrorism hysteria, Bush and his campaign supporters hope to stampede the public and Congress into accepting legislation that would facilitate hard-rock mining, oil drilling and the dumping of toxic waste on Native territory.

“This is like going back to the James Watt era of public lands management,” states Stephen D’Esposito, president of the Mineral Policy Center (MPC), in a reference to the pro-industry Interior Secretary of the Reagan Administration.

During the Clinton Administration, Babbitt’s leadership helped the Indian nations of the Southwest make significant progress in their struggle to maintain the sanctity and environmental integrity of their traditional and sacred lands.

The Interior Department scored a major victory in September 2000 when it bought out the White Vulcan Pumice Mine in Arizona. The mine threatened to desecrate the San Francisco Peaks, a region sacred to 13 tribes. The US Forest Service approved an additional 74,000 acres surrounding the Peaks for a “mineral withdrawal” that would ban any new mining claims for 20 years.

In November, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) ordered a 9,360-acre mineral withdrawal in Indian Pass, in California’s Imperial Valley - an area that has been inhabited by the native Quechan people for 12,000 years.

The withdrawal, however, did not affect plans by Glamis Imperial Corp. (a subsidiary of Canadian-owned Glamis Gold Ltd.) to open a gold mine in Indian Pass. But a policy opinion signed by Babbitt ruled that the BLM had the authority to deny Glamis’ permit under the amended Federal Land Policy Management Act and the California Desert Preservation Act. In January 2001, the BLM decided that the mine could not operate in Indian Pass, as it would cause “undue impairment” to the area that contains geographical features and trails vital to the Quechan’s religion and culture.

But as Bush was sworn in, the environmentally friendly atmosphere began to dissolve. The mining industry, which contributed perhaps as much as $7 million to Bush’s campaign, vehemently opposed the new hard-rock mining rules that went into place on Clinton’s last day in office. The National Mining Association and Denver-based Newmont Mining Corp. filed lawsuits to block the new rules. The industry particularly objected to requirements that mining companies be required to post bonds to ensure adequate cleanup after a mine has closed. Without such bonds, taxpayers wind up paying the bills.

Interior Secretary Norton gutted the BLM’s new ability to deny operating permits that would damage cultural or religious resources. Babbitt’s denial of the Glamis Imperial project had set a historical precedent by suggesting that the antiquated Mining Law of 1872 may not constitute the “highest and best use” of the land.

“It was a good victory for us,” says Michael Jackson, Sr., president of the Quechan Tribal Council, “and also for other tribal nations that face the same problem.”

But Norton and her solicitor, William Meyers, rewrote Babbitt’s legal opinion, declaring that since there was no written regulatory definition of “undue impairment,” the BLM cannot deny the Glamis permit for that reason.

Norton “worked behind the scenes, in secret,” says Courtney Ann Coyle, attorney for the Quechan Indian Nation. “Her policies have a complete lack of consultation on issues concerning Indian Country.” In February, the BLM initiated “validity exams” to determine whether Glamis’ current claims offered sufficient potential for profit. If the claims pass the test, the battle for the Quechan’s sacred land may be decided in the courtroom.

Uranium on the Rebound?
During the waning months of the Clinton Administration, the Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM), the Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC) and the Diné people of the Crownpoint and Churchrock in northwestern New Mexico continued to block plans by Hydro Resources Inc. (HRI) to construct four uranium mines and a processing plant near their community. Residents feared the project could poison their air and drinking water.

Coinciding with the Bush/Cheney team’s promotion of nuclear power is legislation spearheaded by Rep. Heather Wilson (R-NM) that would provide uranium mining companies with $30 million over a three-year period. Wilson’s plan would help HRI kick-start its Crownpoint project by providing its parent company (Dallas-based Uranium Resources, Inc.) with a $10 million bailout.

Mitchell Capitan of ENDAUM says Wilson never met with local Diné before announcing her corporate welfare package. Wilson’s proposed gift to HRI has outraged residents in New Mexico. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen an issue galvanize a community like this,” says Chris Shuey of SRIC.

The provision’s fate will be decided by a congressional committee after an energy bill has been formulated. Meanwhile, former Diné uranium miners still suffer from exposure to uranium ore. The sick miners are still waiting to be compensated under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. Many have been given IOUs by the government and told that the funds have run out.

Bush and his cronies have brought new blood to an old war and given the battleground new names - Indian Pass, Crownpoint and Churchrock. The Bush White House wants a nuclear waste site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada (traditional territory of the Western Shoshone), uranium mining permits on Havasupai and Hualapai land in the Grand Canyon and a coal strip mine near the sacred salt lake of the Zuni people.

But it is also “a new day for tribal leaders” says Michael Jackson, Sr. “We aren’t going to stand in the corner and accept it. We have a fight on our hands.”

What You Can Do For more information contact the Mineral Policy Center [1612 K St., NW Suite 808, Washington DC 20006, (202) 887-1872] and SRIC [105 Stanford SE, PO Box 4524, Albuquerque, NM 87106, (505) 262-1862].

Brad Miller, a California-based rock-climber and writer, is the
Journal’s roving correspondent.

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Subscribe Now

Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.