This essay is excerpted from Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland, edited by Joshua Frank and JEFFREY ST. CLAIR. (AK Press, 2008)
Of all the states across the West, Oregon—particularly its eastern half—has been the only one to escape the ravages of the big mining companies. It lacked the opulent gold desposits that prompted torments of the land from the California Sierras to Montana’s Northern Rockies.
The high deserts of eastern Oregon are among the most remote, thinly populated and driest in the West. In 1987, two hikers, Gary and Carolyn Brown, were backpacking west of the Owyhee River canyon near the border between Oregon and Idaho when they came across hundreds of survey stakes. To the mining industry’s considerable misfortune, the Brown’s took an immediate interest in the purpose of these stakes. Carolyn was a botanists and both were active in the environmental movement.
The Browns began a probe. They soon discovered through the Bureau of Land Management that the surveyors had been working on behalf of international mining companies laying claim to hundreds of thousands of wilderness acres. By the end of 1988, no less than 21,000 separate mining claims had been filed around the geological formation known as the Snake River Graben. (A graben is a mineral-laden depression between two faults in the crust of the earth.)
Of these thousands of claims the richest prospects were held by the Atlas Corporation—an international mining giant—on public lands overseen by the BLM in an area called Grassy Mountain. On the basis of their exploratory drillings, geologists for Atlas forecast that the deposits held as much as a million ounces of gold, valued at nearly a billion dollars.
Under the giveaway provisions of the 1872 Mining Law, Atlas could patent these claims for a mere five dollars per acre, pay no royalties on the value of the gold removed and have no obligations to clean up their mess.
The exact nature of the impending mess became of central importance. One of the reasons eastern Oregon had escaped the trauma of mining was that the gold deposits were so splintered in the rock that their extraction was uneconomical with the technologies then available. These were not veins of gold at Grassy Mountain so much as capillaries, yielding only .023 ounces of gold per ton of rock—about a teaspoon of gold for every dumptruck load of rubble.
It was only with the advent of open pit cyanide heap leach mining in the late 1970s and early 1980s that extracting gold in these tiny amounts became a practical proposition for the big companies. The economic math comes out at about $150 in labor and machinery costs for every ounce of gold removed. Gold is now selling for about $400 an ounce.
In 1992, Atlas sold its Grassy Mountain claims to the Denver-based Newmont Mining Company, the largest gold mining enterprise in North America. Atlas made a quick $30 million and a sense of relief that it wouldn’t have to undertake the sort of expensive fight against environmentalists that Newmont had the treasury and political clout to wage.
Newmont enjoys $2 billion in assets and was backed by money from Jacob Rothschild (in the English branch of the banking dynasty), Wall Street investor George Soros and Sir James Goldsmith, an Anglo-French tycoon noted for his extreme rightwing views, his brace of mistresses, his food empire Cavenham, his palace on the west coast of Mexico and former ownership of the Crown-Zellerbach timber empire, which he later renamed Cavenham Forest Industries. James’s brother Teddy is the publisher of The Ecologist, which survives in part due to subventions from his nature-raping brother who now sits in the European parliament and who backed a fascist presidential candidate in a recent French election. Goldsmith acquired his interest in Newmont by trading his 99 percent ownership of Cavenham Forest Industries for Hanson PLC’s 49 percent stake in Newmont.
While these shifts in mining ownership were taking place, Carolyn and Gary Brown were building up grassroots opposition from their home in Ontario, a small town on the Oregon-Idaho boarder, where Gary managed a local outlet of a Boise-based tire company. The Browns were eager to politicize the mining issue and take it directly to the people. In this strategy they found common cause with Larry Tuttle. Tuttle is an interesting man who has led a switchback career from banker to congressional candidate to Wilderness Society executive to director of the Oregon Natural Resources Council to founder of his own political green group, Citizens for Environmental Equity. In 1996, Tuttle completed an 1,872 mile walk across the West to call attention to the evil consequences of the 1872 Mining Law.
By the mid-1990s, the battle of Grassy Mountain was truly joined. Newmont had unveild its intention to dig an 800-foot deep pit a half-mile wide into the heart of Grassy Mountain. The Browns and Tuttle struck back with a state-wide initiative on the Oregon ballot to impose stringent environmental safeguards on chemical gold mining in the state, including rigid reclamation stipulations forcing mining companies to spend millions cleaning up their cyanide mess and refilling their vast pits in the earth. The earliest voter polls showed the initiative being favored by as much as 67 percent of the Oregon voters.
Then Newmont struck back. The company saturated the airwaves of the state with $5 million public relations campaign designed to portray the Browns and Tuttle as green extremists intent on snatching money away from the dinner tables and infant platters of rural Oregon families. The pro-mine faction went after the Browns, isolated in the Oregon outback, in a number of nasty ways. They received numerous threats against their lives, their home and their jobs. Eventually, Gary arrived at work one day to find that his employers had reassigned him to an outlet in Boise, landing him with a 120-mile daily commute.
Newmont won that battle, but they soon lost the war. After a blitzkrieg of deceitful television ads, the mining initiative went down by a narrow margin. The company spent $5 million for their victory, the enviros spent less than $100,000. But amid the rubble of defeat, Tuttle and the Browns announced that they were refilling the initiative with even stronger provisions for the next election.
Faced with the prospect of another prolonged campaign, Newmont instead decided to throw in the towel. In its corporate filings, Newmont announced that it was taking a $35 million tax write off ($30 million for the purchase price and $5 million for the ballot fight) and was putting their Grassy Mountain claims up for sale. Tuttle pressed forward the mining initiative for good measure.
For the time being, eastern Oregon remains free of gaping pits, cyanide ponds and 600-foot tall mounds of crushed rock. The Browns and Tuttle showed that determined opposition and a belief in attacking corporations head on can win the day, as they banished North America’s largest gold mining company from the state of Oregon.
At the height of their struggle, the Mineral Policy Center—the national, Washington-based group timidly seeking to reform the archaic mining law—bizarrely sang the praises of Newmont, calling their plans for Grassy Mountain the kind of eco-friendly mining they would “like to see more of in the future.” No national environmental organization raised a finger to help Tuttle and the Browns, which is probably why they won.
JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book, Born Under a Bad Sky, is just out from AK Press / CounterPunch books. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.