The Riches of the Desert: Can the Bureau of Land Management Reject a Mining Operation Based on Historic and Cultural Concerns?

May 2002
ELR 10603
Shaye Diveley

At first glance, the California Desert Conservation Area (CDCA) is a 25-million-acre expanse of sand dunes, brush lands, rock formations, and loneliness and desolation. However, a cursory look at the landscape belies the desert's significant historical, scenic, archeological, environmental, biological, cultural, scientific, educational, recreational, and economic resources" that the U.S. Congress recognized when it dedicated the area in 1976. It is this amalgamation of wonders and riches that makes the CDCA one of the world's unique geographic and natural treasures, and an area ripe for conflict over value judgments and human development.

The range of riches in this region is practically immeasurable. For example, the desert is home to special protection areas for the endangered Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard and the desert tortoise. Beneath the surface, the area holds archeological and historic remnants of Native American communities and early miners and pioneers. The highly mineralized CDCA is also host to approximately 124 mining operations extracting 34 different mineral commodities, including the country's only workable deposits of borax and rare earth minerals. Adding to the area's $1 billion annual mineral production are high-grade sodium, calcium, gypsum, clay, gold, and geothermal resources. The many visitors to the desert find it ideal for hiking, hunting, camping, and off-highway recreational vehicle driving and racing, making the CDCA one of the nation's most heavily visited recreational areas. These contrasting interests in the desert are showcased in epic battles between those looking to preserve the natural and cultural wonders of the region and those desiring to develop their potential. One such clash concerns the proposed Imperial Gold Mine near El Centro, California. This conflict has three major players—Glamis Gold, Inc., a small mining company headquartered in Reno, Nevada, which wants to develop the gold deposit at the site; the Quechan Indian Tribe, a nearby Native American community which considers the proposed mine site a place of religious significance; and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the federal agency charged with administering mining claims on public lands, which wants to know if it has legal authority to deny the mining operation. Added to this mix is former U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) Solicitor John Leshy's legal opinion, known as the Glamis Directive, purportedly providing the legal authority for BLM to deny the mining operation. Relying on the Glamis Directive, former Secretary of the DOI Bruce Babbitt denied the directive's plan of operations for the mine just days before leaving office in January 2001.

Shaye Diveley is an associate with Stoel Rives, L.L.P., a combination with Washburn, Briscoe & McCarthy, where her practice includes natural resources, environmental, and land use litigation. She graduated cum laude from University of California, Hastings College of the Law, 2001, where she was a 1999-2000 Joe Rudd Scholar from the Rocky Mountain Mineral Law Foundation. Prior to law school, Ms. Diveley worked as a policy analyst for The Gold Institute.

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The Riches of the Desert: Can the Bureau of Land Management Reject a Mining Operation Based on Historic and Cultural Concerns?

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