Discrepancy with public stance
Behind the Scenes, Babbitt Blocks for
Multi-National Mining Conglomerates

by Steve Miller
copyright 1997, Electric Nevada

In public, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt regularly complains that current U.S. mining laws require him to cooperate in a "bilking of the taxpayer" to the benefit of international mining consortiums.
Away from the spotlight, however, the Secretary actively uses his authority to speed the virtual giveaway of federal mineral rights to these very same billion-dollar companies.
That's the discrepancy revealed in documents obtained by Electric Nevada this week.
At least twice during Babbitt's tenure in office, multi-national mining conglomerates active in northeastern Nevada's rich Carlin Trend have sought to acquire new mineral rights in the gold and silver belt inexpensively through land exchanges with the Bureau of Land Management.
And both times, when protests were filed on ground the swaps simply gave valuable mineral rights away to the mining firms for free, Babbitt intervened, dismissing the protests and blocking any further administrative appeals against the transfers.
Under federal regulations, the Secretary of the Interior can step in and respond directly to any protest against a DOI agency's decision. When he does so, the matter can no longer be appealed to the department's Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA).
Charles Hancock, a critic of current federal land-swap practices, says he



can recall no Interior Secretary before Babbitt using his authority to block protests on land cases. Hancock, for years before his 1989 retirement, was in charge of appraisals on all federal land in Nevada.
"The authority is there," he said, "but I had never seen it used in lands protests in Nevada, as long as I'd been in the state."
Early last week Babbitt appeared with environmentalist and taxpayer groups, demanding Congress reform the 125-year-old 1872 mining law, which the Interior secretary called "a complete bilking of the taxpayer."
Independence Mining Company and Barrick Goldstrike Mines received the lands and mineral rights in the Carlin Trend land-swap cases where Babbitt intervened.
Hancock had objected to both exchanges, saying the land and mineral estates being given up to the mining companies by the BLM were worth far more than what taxpayers were receiving in return.
After Babbitt dismissed Hancock's May, 1995 protest of the swap with Independence Mining Co., that firm received 14,253 acres of public land, in



exchange for 4,132 it gave the BLM.
Of the land that went to the mining company, 6500 acres were identified as having high potential for gold and silver. Of the land that went to the BLM, none was rated as having any mineral potential.
As compensation for the 6500 acres of rich mineral estate it received, Independence paid the BLM $51,220.
Not only was that sum a ridiculous pittance, says Hancock, but its payment brought to an end an annual net income of over $100,000 that the federal government had been receiving for assessments on more than 1100 Independence mining claims on those acres.
"It is hard to understand how such an annual income can be completely ignored in the appraisal process," said Hancock in a letter to the BLM Elko office in June last year.
That letter was protesting another pending land swap, one sought by Barrick Goldstrike Mines.
"Information in BLM's Nevada State office," wrote Hancock, "indicates the appraisal of the selected lands was only for the surface value. The [office] has no record of a mineral appraisal being made for the value of the mineral estate...
"The fact is that the 1278 acres of public lands do have mineral value. The public is entitled to




be compensated for it. The selected lands are located in a geologic structure known throughout the Carlin Trend to produce gold and silver."
Hancock's June 2, 1996 protest of the Barrick Goldstrike swap was dismissed in a letter from Babbitt's office dated April 24, 1997.
Altogether, the Secretary's office has now intervened to dismiss six of his protests, says Hancock -- twice in Elko area land-swaps, and four times in Las Vegas exchanges.
The first time Hancock ever saw the ploy, he says, was when Babbitt used it to dismiss a protest Hancock had filed against a multimillion-dollar Las Vegas area land swap several years ago.
"Always before, all of [the] protests during the years I was in Nevada -- any protest on classification, or public sale, or anything -- they automatically went through IBLA."
The firm that proposed the swap Hancock was opposing is an Arizona general partnership, Olympic Group Inc., which does business in Nevada as Olympic of Nevada, Inc.
That firm, believes Hancock, "had enough juice to get the Secretary's office to kind of intervene and exercise its authority."
Babbitt is a former governor of Arizona and also a long-time attorney and consultant to land development and


 
other companies in that state.
After that first intervention and dismissal by Babbitt, says Hancock, the Interior Secretary's office has stepped in to dismiss five other protests filed by Hancock of BLM land swaps.
"They just bypass me," he says. "Because they know that I can't afford to take it into federal court. Now, if I was the Sierra Club, making these same protests, then they'd think twice..."
Hancock agrees with Babbitt that until Congress changes the 1872 mining law, mining companies will be able to get title to mining claims by merely meeting mineral patent requirements.
But with a mere stroke of his pen, says Hancock, Babbitt could stop "major, multi-national mining corporations in Nevada from acquiring




the mineral estate in thousands of acres of public land through land exchanges.
"All he has to do is reserve mineral rights to the government on lands being conveyed by exchanges in mineral areas.
"This he has refused to do on recent exchanges in Elko County."
Hancock notes that Barrick Goldstrike recently filed a new exchange proposal with BLM, offering 45,187 acres for 54,039 acres of public land near Midas, known for its mineral potential.
"This exchange, like the others," he says, "is a ploy to get mineral rights for practically noting."
Hancock has filed an objection to the new proposal.


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