Conspiracy theory or synchronized thievery?
There is yet another confluence of controversy between federal legislation forcing a Native American tribe to accept money as payment for most of the land in Nevada and mining decisions that affect a huge chunk of that same land.
In late April, the largest mining operator in the Crescent Valley area—home to the Dann family ranch and the Western Shoshone Defense Project—announced the discovery of a new place to mine gold at Cortez Hills near Mount Tenabo in the Cortez Mountain Range.
Within a couple of months, members of the U.S. House of Representatives were talking about Nevada Rep. Jim Gibbons’ bill to distribute $142.5 million held for the Western Shoshone in a decades-old trust fund as a payment for Shoshone land.
The proposed mine would violate ancestral land near Mount Tenabo, say folks from the WSDP and Great Basin Mine Watch, which is also fighting the mine.
“There’s no mitigation that can make up for mining in somebody’s church,” said Christie Whiteside, GBMW program associate.
Whiteside fears that the proposed mine is just the tip of a larger plan that could include new mines all along the mountain range to the east of Crescent Valley. The area is home to Western Shoshone grandmothers Mary and Carrie Dann, who’ve run their homesteaded ranch for decades while continually battling the Bureau of Land Management.
The BLM says the Danns owe the feds millions in fines for illegal grazing. The Danns say the land belongs to the Western Shoshone and they shouldn’t have to pay.
So who holds title to the land?
In the early 1860s, mining began in the Cortez Mountains. By 1863, the Western Shoshone Nation had signed a Treaty of Peace and Friendship, aka the Treaty of Ruby Valley, with the United States. The treaty allowed for a $5,000 annuity to the Shoshone to compensate for environmental damages.
The Shoshone received $5,000 worth of provisions and clothing when the treaty was signed. That’s it. In 1961, the Carlin Trend, a mining hot spot that would yield 40 million ounces of gold, was discovered.
In 1962, the Indian Claims Commission ruled that the Western Shoshone land had become the property of the United States through “gradual encroachment.”
Federal squatting, in other words.
In 1979, the feds decided to pay for the land at rates appropriate to the 1870s, or 15 cents an acre, a total of $26.1 million. The Shoshone refused the money, which has grown to $142.5 million. Gibbons’ bill, under consideration in the House, would force the distribution of the settlement money. Each member of the tribe would get about $30,000.
The Pipeline Gold Mine in the Cortez Range was opened in 1997. Later, the South Pipeline Mine doubled the size of the original project. The BLM busied itself rounding up the Danns’ cattle.
It’d be easy to dismiss the conspiracy theory that the federal government wants clear title to the land because of its richness in minerals. Still, it is awfully handy to try to force the Western Shoshone to accept the government’s money now, after all these years.
“It would certainly … make it easier and a lot less messy to go in and clear the way for mines to go in,” said Whiteside. “You know, it’s been quite apparent that the title to the land has never been cleared. That’s something that’s always been hanging over their heads.”
Whiteside traveled to Crescent Valley to speak with the Danns and other members of the WSDP this week. The groups are already pushing for the Bureau of Land Management to do a cumulative environmental-impact study that takes into consideration both impacts from the Pipeline mines and the proposed new mines. They’d also like to see a map of all the claims held by Cortez Joint Venture, so that they can see the mining company’s game plan.
“It looks like they’re going to mine that whole range there,” Whiteside said. “We’re just getting started on it. We’ve got a long road ahead of us.”
As far as fighting the mine on the grounds that the land is sacred to the Shoshone, Whiteside acknowledges that there isn’t much case law to support their complaint.
When ancestral lands compete with the 1872 Mining Law, it’s easy to predict which will win.
“In a [federal] agency’s mind, mining is the highest and best use of land," Whiteside said. "They may say, ‘We’ll put a 25-foot buffer between open pit and sacred site.' But I haven’t seen a mine stopped on that basis."