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I-Team: Mining Interests Face Further Scrutiny

by Chief Investigative Reporter George Knapp and Photojournalist Matt AdamsLas Vegas Now
April 17th, 2009

The quest for gold fueled the exploration and settlement of the west and contributed to the demise of Native American tribes.

Now, a new gold rush is underway in Nevada and it is pitting indigenous tribes against their own people and has sparked  ferocious court battles.

Mt. Denabo in northern Nevada is shrouded not only by mists, but also by mystery. To the indigenous peoples who've lived around the mountain for 10,000 years, Denabo is a place of creation, sort of the Western Shoshone Garden of Eden.

So when Barrick Gold, the world's largest mining conglomerate, announced plans of two massive mining operations on Denabo -- one a massive open pit mine, the other a miles-long underground mine -- some tribal leaders saw it as a horrible sacrilege.

"This mountain is very special to the Shoshone people," said Larson Bill with the Te Moak Shoshones.

Bill thinks the Barrick mines are an affront not only to his religious beliefs, but also to the law. Like many Shoshone, Bill believes that most of the land in northern Nevada still belongs to the Western Shoshone under a treaty signed in the 1860's. It's a view the mining companies and the U.S. government do not share.

In the past year, several bands have tried to stop the project, dubbed Cortez Hills, in Federal Court, but they've lost each time. The historical irony of the mine's name is not lost on tribe members.

"It's always been about gold, even from the beginning. Like the name Cortez, you know," said Bill.

The tribes say the pit mining will destroy thousands of acres, disturb burial sites, and deny access to pine nut forests. What they worry most about is the long term effect of dewatering the mountain so the miners can extract an estimated 8,000,000 ounces of gold.

"This area has been mined since the 1870's," said Lou Schack with Barrick Gold.

Shack says the spiritual sanctity of Denabo has been violated continuously for more than a century, though he admits the Barrick mines will operate on a much larger scale.

As for Denabo being a sacred site? "Most of the Western Shoshone we work with will tell you that all land is sacred and no particular place is more sacred than another. And a lot of us feel the same way. I love Nevada -- the open spaces. Frankly, the people in opposition of this mine have told us for years they don't want us to mine period in Nevada. They don't want us here and they oppose us," said Schack.

The wealthy mining companies have won every court battle so far and have won over some Shoshone bands as well, who gave their okay to the project in exchange for jobs, scholarships, and economic assistance.

Larson Bill says the tribes that have aligned with Barrick are mostly from other parts of the state and implies they've been bought off. "They turn Shoshone against Shoshone because of ideas of promises of money," he said. "Whoever has the gold rules, and right now it's Barrick."

Schack says Barrick is being a good neighbor by improving living standards in Shoshone communities and by making sure the tribes still have access to the mountain.

Environmentalists who are pushing for the elimination of tax deductions for mining companies think these gestures are a pittance. "They fund scholarships, they fund any number of things, that is great. But it's chicken feed compared to the amount of money these taxes these counties and municipalities would get if some of these deductions are eliminated," said High Jackson with the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.

Nevada lawmakers are currently considering ways to extract more revenue from mining profits. The mining companies have said they will step up to the plate but hope that any tax increases would be shared by the larger business community and not just them.

The Shoshones intend to continue their legal fight against the mining operation on Mt. Denabo though they certainly understand the odds are long. They will be gathering at the foot of the mountain to protest the mining operations.


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