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Indian Pass, CA (Quechan) (2004)

The land called Indian Pass is an area, encompassed in the Indian Pass Wilderness, which covers over 32,000 acres. The landscape is a mix of desert and canyons, heavily influenced by its proximity to the Colorado river, which makes the area a rich habitat for both plants and animals. Indian Pass is located in Imperial County, California, very near the border with Arizona. The land is public, maintained and governed by the Bureau of Land Management(BLM), though public land in the United States by law can be open to use by individuals and private corporations for, among other things, resource extraction.
For at least 7,000 years, however, this land has been the home of the Quechan Tribe, formerly known as the Yuma Tribe. The relationship between this Native community and Indian Pass has been a very unique one, as the place is considered to be of great spiritual and cultural importance. Primarily, the Quechan people have used the land as a burial place for their relatives, and have traveled its trails and canyons on individual journeys characterized by a meditative practice called “dreaming.”
After the gold rush in the mid 19th century, the Quechan people were forced from much of the land, including Indian Pass, that they had traditionally occupied onto a reservation that now straddles the boarder between Arizona and California. Though Indian Pass is not on the reservation, many people in the Quechan community still consider the site sacred and still go there to enact traditional ceremonies. For this reason, alteration to this place would be devastating to this community and its way of life.
In the late 1990s, however, the use of the land as a sacred site was even futher threatened. Glamis Gold Ltd., a Canadian gold mining company, established an American subsidiary, Glamis Imperial, in order to claim the right to petition the US Government for permission to develop the federal land. Under the General Mining Law of 1872, United States citizens (or corporations) are allowed to perform open mining operations on federally owned land with a permit from the BLM.
Proposed Mining of Indian Pass
The proposed development of mining operations on Indian Pass, first initiated in 1987, calls for the alteration of 1,400 acres of federal land for the purpose of a surface mining. Surface mining, also known as open-pit mining, is a large scale operation that involves extracting ore from large quantities of rock. Charles Levendosky, an editor of the Casper (WY) Star-Tribune wrote, in 2002, that the Glamis mine at Indian Pass would be even more inefficient than most open pit mines in its gold production, extracting only 1 ounce of gold for every 280 tons of rock. The largest of the three mines that would be created on the site would be approximately 900 feet deep, and the development would involve the destruction of several natural ridges in the area.
The Quechan tribe condemns the development of the sacred land and argues it is not possible to use the land for essential ceremonies if the appearance is modified from its natural state. Furthermore, the introduction of noise pollution and service roads would unduly hamper their ability to carry out religious "dreaming" ceremonies on any of the other trails and sites that are located around and inside the proposed mining site. Non-Native parties concerned with the proposed mining contend that digging in the area would permanently destroy archaeological sites in the area, the recreational value of the land for hiking and backpacking would be lost, and that a variety of desert plants and animals would be threatened by the loss of habitat.
In 2000, the BLM received the initial petition from Glamis for the right to develop the area in Indian Pass for the extraction of gold. Following department policy, the BLM created an Environmental Impact Statement and Report regarding the Glamis proposal. The Report measured the impact the development would have on the environment, the current recreational and spiritual use of the land, the benefits that development would have, and offered judgments on the long term benefits of the land.
In January of 2001, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt denied the request for open-pit mining at Indian Pass, based on the findings of the Environmental Impact Report. The decision to deny weighed heavily on a BLM directive that recommended the BLM withhold approval for mining operations that resulted in “substantial irreparable harm” to environmentally and culturally significant land.
The Glamis Corporation challenged the decision by filing a lawsuit against the BLM in the US District Court in Reno, Nevada where the Glamis headquarters are located. The American subsidiary for Glamis Gold Ltd. claimed the new directive violated long-standing practices as well as the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976. It asked the BLM to suspend all activity regarding the Imperial County (Indian Pass) gold deposit claims until a judge reviewed the validity of the directive.
After the 2000 presidential elections, however, changes in the Department of the Interior signaled reconsideration of the Glamis mine. Before the Glamis claims were heard before a judge, the new Secretary of the Interior under the Bush administration, Gale Norton, began to reform the policies of the DOI. In March of 2001 the BLM moved to suspend the regulations on mining that had been created during the Clinton administration that resulted in the denial of Glamis’ mining operations. In October of 2001, Secretary of the Interior Norton allowed Glamis to reapply with the BLM for permission to run an open-pit mine at Indian Pass. Months later tribe members were shocked to read in a newspaper that Norton had made a decision to allow the development of Indian Pass without notifying them first.
California Law
While the federal support for protecting the land at Indian Pass was undercut by the changing of administrations, local environmentalists and outdoorsmen worked in conjunction with the Quechan community to support the initiative to protect the land from development. These added interests were motivated not only by the potential loss of natural beauty, but the fact that the plans for the Glamis development indicated very little local economic benefit, as it would not employ a significant amount of Californian workers. In fact, polls indicated that at least 64% of voters in California supported the Quechan community's cause.
With this added public support, the California Attorney General’s office issued a press release asserting that Interior Secretary Norton’s decision had misconstrued the policy set forth for the BLM in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. In April of 2000, the office urged Secretary Norton to reconsider her decision that the mine did not cause “undue impairment” of the religiously significant land.
The California State Senate realized that public support was largely opposed to Glamis’ interests and that Norton’s decision was of questionable legality. In August of 2002 it introduced Senate Bill 1828, which required business practices to “honor, respect, and safeguard the environment...” including lands deemed sacred by native communities. The Quechan made a huge effort to support the bill, and even undertook a 700 mile "spirit race" to demonstrate their concern. Despite the wishes of the Quechan and 74% of his voting base, California’s Governor Gray Davis vetoed the Senate’s bill, claiming the language was too vague. In his decision to veto Davis claimed to support the protection of sacred land, and did work with the senate to write another, albeit weaker, bill (SB 483) requiring economic interests to consider the cultural significance of the land they use.
The next year, Senate Bill 22 was introduced and passed into law in April 2003 by Governor Davis. Senate Bill 22 is specifically directed to surface mining in the state of California, and “requires that all excavation be backfilled and graded to achieve the approximate original contours of the mined lands prior to mining, and the financial assurances are sufficient in amount to provide for the backfilling and grading.” The legislation requires that the site of a surface mine be completely backfilled and returned to its original state.
This, however, did not offer the kind of complete protection groups like the Quechan sought. In response, Governor Davis met with many tribal leaders and introduced a further bill, SB 18, which gave tribes a voice in the discussions about if and how resources around sacred sites are managed. The bill failed by only three votes, and was the most recent major effort on the part of California to protect sites like Indian Pass.
Still, though, SB 22 remained in place and embodied a significant inconvenience to mining companies like Glamis. In protest, in July 2003, the Glamis Corporation argued that the burden of backfilling their mines is too expensive to make the operational profitable. As a result Glamis sent notice to the US Federal Government that it plans to sue the government for $50 million dollars in damages for violating the free trade guidelines of NAFTA. Glamis claims that its property interests were unfairly expropriated by the legislation that requires backfilling, citing breaches of NAFTA Articles 1105 and 1110. Currently the suit is being heard and Glamis public financial records indicate their continued interest in developing the area.
Originally drafted by David Trangsrud
Updated on October 4, 2004