By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
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Summo had been planning a mine in the Lisbon Valley long before the controversy over its proposed mine in New Mexico came to a head. But Howe and others say the BLM never would have called for giving Summo outright ownership of the land in Utah if it didn't feel there were few other ways to stop the Copper Hill mine.
"What you need to do if you're a mining company is propose the most offensive project you can, and then you can get paid off," says Jay Tutchton, a staff attorney with the National Wildlife Federation in Boulder who represents Howe and is now challenging Summo's Lisbon Valley mine proposal before an Interior Department appeal board. "Summo almost got paid off for the [New Mexico] mine with federal land in the Lisbon Valley. They wanted to save a nice mountain in New Mexico by trashing a valley in Utah."
Any comparison of the Lisbon Valley deal to the New World mine makes Hahn bristle. He says the BLM simply wanted to offer Summo title to land it planned to mine anyway and calls that a fair exchange for the company's willingness to abandon its Copper Hill project. "It's a far cry from the New World situation," he insists.
Tempers have continued to flare over the proposed land swap even though the BLM now insists it's a dead issue. "There's not an interest in BLM or the Interior Department to pursue the land-exchange idea," says Kate Kitchell, Moab district manager for the BLM.
And the BLM is still under pressure from environmentalists to throw out a controversial mining permit already issued for the Utah mine. The parties involved in the dispute are now trying to negotiate a settlement. But Summo's headaches are likely to become more common as attitudes toward mining in the mountain West become more critical.
For decades Westerners thought mining was part of the lifeblood of the region. Today the political power of the industry remains formidable--mining companies and their allies in Congress, for instance, have fought off all attempts to reform the nation's ancient mining law. But the industry's comfort zone is shrinking, even in areas like Moab, where mining has long been romanticized.
"As people from other areas move into the West, they're here to enjoy life, not make a living," laments Hahn.
Most public officials and residents of southeast Utah still want the relatively well-paying jobs that come with mining. "We support it 100 percent," says San Juan County Commissioner Bill Redd of the Lisbon Valley mine. "We're one of the poorest counties in America, and it would help support our schools and hospital."
But relative newcomers to the area, like Howe, are increasingly willing to oppose an industry that until now has always been welcome. And they're finding ways to challenge proposed mines in spite of the 1872 law that gives the industry remarkable access to public property.
"These people don't want there to be multiple uses of federal lands," says Hahn. "They want BLM land to be part of their backyard."
Hahn adds that many of the people opposed to copper mining don't want to acknowledge that their homes and cars are filled with copper wiring. "One lady in New Mexico told us, 'I don't need copper; I have enough pennies as it is,'" he recalls. "It's hypocritical to advocate against copper mining when you're a big copper consumer."
The new reality, however, is that even a place as isolated as the Lisbon Valley is known and loved by someone, in this case Kay Howe. Summo didn't expect that Howe and a small group of her friends could make as much trouble as they have. For that matter, neither did Howe.
"If we hadn't been involved, that mine would be operating by now," she says. "The BLM thought this thing would slide through like a breeze."
While Summo has been frustrated by the opposition to its proposed mines, the company has reason to persist. Copper prices fluctuate, but demand has been strong recently, and copper has been trading at well over $1 per pound. Since Summo's goal is to spend less than 60 cents per pound producing copper and it expects to extract 40 million pounds of copper per year from the Lisbon Valley, the company stands to make millions off the project.
Summo is a relative newcomer to the mining world. The company was launched in 1993 with financing from Denver-based St. Mary Land and Exploration Company, which sold Summo its claims on Copper Hill and has since invested in the Lisbon Valley project. Summo started selling shares to the public in 1994, and since the company has yet to actually break ground on a mine, the Lisbon Valley project is vital to its future.
The firm is actively exploring for copper in several locations, including the Cashin site in western Colorado (just fifteen miles from the Lisbon Valley) and the Copper Spur property thirty miles southeast of Hayden, Colorado. But it was the proposal to mine Copper Hill near Taos that really introduced Summo to the new reality of mining in the West.
The company conducted exploratory drilling for Copper Hill in 1996 and ascertained that there were valuable copper deposits on the property. But by the time Hahn met with residents last winter at the Picuris Pueblo, the community was already united against the idea of a mine. Hahn recalls confronting an ethnically mixed audience that reflected the changing population of New Mexico.