Lode Warriors

For Kay Howe, the remote Lisbon Valley in southeast Utah is a place to escape to. Just across the state line from Colorado, the uninhabited valley offers sweeping views of two states. "When you're up on top of Three Step Mesa, you have a knockout view of the La Sal Mountains, and you can see the San Juan Mountains and all the canyons that go into the Dolores River," says Howe, a single mother of four who lives 45 miles away, in Moab. "It's a gorgeous area, absolutely beautiful."

Howe and three friends bought a few acres of land near the valley in 1995, making plans to eventually build a small vacation home there. She relishes the isolation and quiet of a spot far from the tourist bustle of Moab. "There's not the light of one house or ranch for twenty miles," she says.

But decisions made hundreds of miles away in downtown Denver could disrupt Howe's plans. Denver-based Summo Minerals Corporation has proposed a large copper mine on 1,000 acres in the Lisbon Valley. That proposal calls for digging huge pits in the valley, piling up ore from those pits, and dripping sulfuric acid onto those piles to leach copper from the ore.

Summo has tried to keep a low profile since being formed in 1993. It hasn't actually mined anything yet and sees itself as more responsible to neighboring communities than most mining firms. Yet today the company has become the latest poster child in the ongoing battle over federal mining law. And the Lisbon Valley is ground zero in a bitter controversy that already boasts allegations of a government conspiracy and an attempted back-room deal, as well as numerous examples of how traditional attitudes toward mining in the West have started to change.

For Summo, the irony is that if ever there was a perfect site for a copper mine, the Lisbon Valley is it. The stretch of high desert doesn't quite qualify as the middle of nowhere, but it comes close. It's been mined before, and officials with the federal Bureau of Land Management who are responsible for the land regard it as an ideal spot for a new mine. As little as ten years ago, it's likely no one would have thought to challenge Summo's right to dig there.

They have now.

Summo's introduction to the brave new world of mining started last year in New Mexico. After the company proposed building a mine near Taos, an Indian tribe accused the company of planning to destroy a sacred mountain, and farmers and ranchers said they feared contamination of the Rio Embudo and Rio Grande rivers from mine runoff. The almost unanimous opposition to the mine--and the good jobs it would bring to a poor area--startled the company.

"I got wind that there was a meeting being held at the Picuris Pueblo, which is adjacent to our property," says Gregory Hahn, president of Summo. "I felt it was important to meet with them. We were shocked by their opposition."

To settle the controversy, the BLM brokered a solution it thought would make everyone happy. Summo executives told the BLM they'd give up the firm's claim to New Mexico's Copper Hill in return for the title to 1,000 acres of public land in the Lisbon Valley. With the Utah land under private ownership, Summo could develop the property with virtually no federal oversight.

That deal was quietly negotiated by New Mexico BLM officials during a meeting with Summo executives in Taos. The parties involved expected a low-key resolution to a potential public-relations fiasco. What they got were accusations of secret deal-making by public officials and charges that Summo was being allowed to turn the Lisbon Valley into a toxic wasteland in exchange for sparing Copper Hill.

Indeed, even though the proposed land swap has since been vetoed by Interior Department officials in Washington, D.C., critics like Howe still view the suggested arrangement as part of a disturbing new trend. They fear that mining companies are using the 125-year-old federal law that governs mining on public lands to intimidate government officials into giving them ownership of valuable public resources.

The 1872 law gives those with valid mining claims an almost unassailable right to mine public lands. And when it comes to stopping environmentally destructive mines, the government often has few options. A 1990 proposal for a massive gold mine just outside Yellowstone National Park, for example, sparked a public outcry after critics charged the mine would harm the Yellowstone River and flood the park with toxins.

To stop the proposed New World Mine, federal officials last year struck a deal with the mine owners, offering them $65 million if they'd give up their claims to the area near Yellowstone. At the time, the agreement was widely hailed as a win-win solution (and a boost for President Bill Clinton's re-election campaign, since Clinton personally ventured to Yellowstone to announce the agreement). However, critics worry that the New World deal also made it clear that mining interests can virtually blackmail public officials by threatening to break ground on environmentally questionable projects, all in the hopes of being offered something better elsewhere.