Feds propose mineral extraction withdrawal in Jenny Gulch area

RAPID CITY—On February 21, 2023, the United States Forest Service (USFS) applied for a mineral extraction withdrawal for over 20,000 acres of Black Hills land in the Jenny Gulch area of Pactola Reservoir. This bought those trying to prevent gold mining operations in that area two years to rally opposition to the proposed mining. The public can submit comments over the next three months.

As far back as 2019 concerned residents of the Black Hills met at Silver City to voice their objection to exploratory gold mining in the Jenny Gulch area of Pactola Reservoir. The Minnesota company, F3-Gold, set up this meeting resulting in an overflow crowd. F3-Gold assured the crowd that they would not be using water from any nearby creek, especially Rapid Creek, even if gold was found and mining operations commenced.

In January, 2020, another public meeting was held at the Black Hills National Forest Mystic Ranger District office in Rapid City, where the proposed mineral exploration was again discussed. A month after that, the Rapid City Council voted 6-4 to approve a resolution to keep gold exploration and other mineral extraction out of the Rapid Creek watershed, which feeds Pactola Reservoir.

All of this prompted the USFS to apply for the withdrawal, the purpose being to “protect cultural and natural resources and protect the water for Rapid City and Ellsworth Air Force Base, from the potential effects of mineral exploration and development.”

The USFS operates under the umbrella of the Department of the Interior, and it is not clear if Interior supports or opposes gold mining operations in the Black Hills. Although Bureau of Land Management (BLM) spokesperson Kim Prill did say: “We will not see any new mining claim activity until the Forest Service is able to complete their study. So it allows that buffer time without risk of precluding any decision space until that withdrawal recommendation is made.”

The proposed withdrawal resulted in an April 26 public meeting at Rapid City’s Ramkota, held by USFS and BLM, where they explained the proposed mineral extraction withdrawal. Hundreds of people showed up, representing three main groups: environmental protection advocates; tribal leaders, and Native activists; and those supporting the mineral extraction, greatly outnumbered by those in opposition.

Larry Mann, a former employee of the Homestake Mine in Lead, told the gathering that in 40 years there hasn’t been an exploratory project that resulted in actual mining. He characterized the concern it would as “irresponsible,” He did not explain what would happen if gold was found, or the illogic of drilling for gold with no possibility of success.

Ray Gukeisen, then made the argument that gold mining exploration was critical to national security: “If we continue to rope off our own natural resources and rely on our enemies and global supply chains to supply us with commercially valuable materials, we are setting ourselves at a disadvantage with people who do not have our best interests at heart.”

Gukiesen did not explain how people could be our enemies if we were relying on them for natural resources, nor did he explain, if domestic gold extraction was so vital to national security, why did Homestake shut down their main Black Hills operation?

One post-meeting comment that BLM spokesperson Prill made had disturbing implications: Prill spoke of “critical materials,” how BLM is seeing a lot of interest, “such as cobalt and lithium, that needed for renewable energy resources and similar industry.”

A right-wing coup ousted democratically elected Bolivian President Evo Morales, a Native himself, and known for his defense of Indigenous people. When confronted with the accusation that the USA was behind this coup, for the sake of lithium mining interests, Elon Musk, always in need of lithium for his various business interests, remarked on Twitter: “We will coup whoever we want!”

Indigenous presence at the April 26 meeting consisted of tribal leaders and NDN Collective activists, namely Mark Tilsen, who spoke of the deep spiritual and historically connection the Black Hills have for the Lakota Oyate. The need for tribal consultation was stressed again and again, and this meeting provided another example of how President Clinton’s November 2000, Executive Order 13175, calling for improved tribal consultation, and reaffirmed by both the Obama and Biden administrations, is simply ignored when applied to any critical issue impacting Indian Country.

Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal President Ryman LeBeau said, “…we will do anything and everything to protect the Black Hills, to protect He Sapa. This is very important to us. This is our birthright; this is our birthplace…this is our paradise here on earth.”

One aspect not addressed by those opposing exploratory drilling was the threat from privately owned land in that area, as it is not impacted by any withdrawal outcome. Ostensibly, gold mining operations on private land pose a similar threat to the Rapid Creek watershed.

The USFS will coordinate the case file which will eventually end up on Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s desk. Should she approve the withdrawal, no mining operations can occur on those 20,000 plus acres for the next 20 years. Whether she approves, is entirely up to the president she serves. Despite being Native, and whatever her personal feelings might be, the decision will not be hers to make.

As far as tribal opposition to the gold exploration goes, the irony is Pactola reservoir is a manmade creation of white society. All lakes in the Black Hills are manmade. The area has already been dramatically altered by the dam and the valley flooded behind it, with a subsequent unassessed impact on the environment inundated by those waters.

The environmental review, public comment, and tribal consultation phase will be completed by spring 2024. It is not known how the Biden Administration will rule on this. Formal tribal objection to the inadequate consultation process will probably be forthcoming, although given how three EO’s, including one from the current president, have not changed the consultation reality for the better, the most likely outcome is that government-to-government consultation between the tribes and Washington will not impact the final decision.

(Contact James Giago Davies at skindiesel@msn.com)

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