America's newest National Park, Death Valley, is the latest battleground for a fight being waged between corporations, conservationists, and a band of Native American Indians who have had a National Park carved out of land that they and their ancestors have inhabited for centuries.
Mining corporations want the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe's land (two miles outside the Park) to employ open pit cyanide heap leach gold mining technologies. If granted their way, Canyon Resources (CYNR) of Boulder, Colorado, will return to the pick and shovel scarred landscapes of their forefathers to finish the job started in the 1800's - namely displacing American Indians to wrench from the land its last bit of gold.
The Nuclear Power Industry wants the Timbisha Shoshone's land to place the country's first high-level radioactive nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, twenty miles outside the Park's boundaries, located on top of the aquifer that supplies the tribe's traditional watering areas.
Meanwhile, the Timbisha Shoshone's are asking the US government to recognize their inherent rights as a Native American Indian tribe by establishing a permanent landbase for them in Death Valley National Park on the Tribe's ancestral homelands. The Timbisha Shoshone Tribe have been federally recognized since 1983 but have no permanent home. The National Park Service, however, wants all of the Tribe's ancestral lands and refuses to relinquish control over any of the 3.2 million acres that comprise Death Valley National Park fearing the precedent such an action may set. This is based on a strongly held belief that the Park's mandate to provide visitor services that enhance the American public's use and enjoyment of the Park supersedes any trust responsibility the US government may have to Indian people.
On October 31, 1994, President Clinton signed into law the California Desert Protection Act of 1994. The Desert Protection Act was responsible for upgrading Death Valley from a National Monument to a National Park. The Act also included a small two paragraph amendment that called for the Secretary of Interior to conduct a study to find suitable land within and outside Death Valley National Park for the creation of a permanent land base for the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe to be held in trust by the Secretary of Interior. (See PL 103-433, Section 705b - The California Desert Protection Act)
Six months after passage of the Desert Protection Act and following the Secretary of Interior's failure to begin to carry-out the provisions of section 705b of the Act, the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe initiated a series of meetings with the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, US Fish & Wildlife, US Forest Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Inyo & Esmeralda counties, the Department of the Navy, and the Bureau of Reclamation. At meetings in Death Valley, California, representatives from the Tribe and federal agencies formed the Timbisha Shoshone Land Suitability Study Group, charged with implementing the provisions of section 705b of the Desert Protection Act.
Discussions between the Tribe and federal agencies broke-down in March 1996 when the National Park Service informed the Tribe that no land within Death Valley National Park would be considered for trust status. (See March 14, 1996, National Park Service letter)
Instead of trust land for the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe inside Death Valley National Park, the Park Service has proposed some type of ìlong-term land tenure lease mechanism. Ever since the Tribe increased its focus on the restoration of its aboriginal homelands following federal recognition, this ìlong-term tenure mechanism is the best the Park Service could offer the Tribe. The Park Service even included the temporary land ìmechanism in the Park's General Management Plan as an alternative land management policy. Because the tribe stands on its historical rights to reside on the Timbisha people's ancestral lands, the tribe has continually rejected the Park's offer of leased-land. The Tribe fought to have the section 705b amendment added to the Desert Protection Act, hoping it would finally end the 63 year old struggle over the Tribe's land and water rights, stolen by the Park Service in 1933 with the creation of the Death Valley National Monument.
The National Park Service has now arbitrarily and without authority decided that land within Death Valley National Park is somehow unsuitable for trust land, refusing to consult with the Tribe or define the Park Service's concept of what is ìsuitable for the Timbisha Shoshone.
The National Park Service should follow the lead of Secretary Babbitt when he said in an editorial run by the Scripps Howard News Service, ìWashington's trust responsibility to Indian tribes was established more than two centuries ago by our nation's Founding Fathers; it was ratified by the states and upheld by the Supreme Court. Chief Justice John Marshall in 1832 established a key American legal principle, arguing that ëIndian Nations had always been considered as distinct, independent political communities, retaining their original native rights, as the undisputed possessors of the soil. (See article run by Scripps Howard News Service)
As badly as the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe wants to believe the sincerity of the statements contained in Secretary Babbitt's editorial, the Tribe has little reason to do so. Following the break-down of discussions between the tribe and federal agencies, the tribe contacted the President, Secretary Babbitt, and Congressional representatives seeking their assistance. Their responses have been overly protective of the Park Service, self-serving, and so factually and legally inaccurate that the tribe firmly believes ìWashington has failed to live up to its trust responsibility. (See related correspondence from Senators Feinstein, McCain, Simon, Congressman Lewis, & the Secretary of Interior's Office)
The Tribe has requested President Clinton, in a letter date September 8, 1996, to stop the actions of the National Park Service in continuing to conduct an illegal study under section 705b; to take over the study process establishing a new trustee for this purpose within the Executive Office of the President; and, actively engage the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe in this process. There has been no response from the President as yet. In the event the President does not intervene, the Tribe is left with few alternatives, except to sue the United States. (See September 8, 1996, letter to President Clinton)
The initial CR Briggs project is underway and mining gold on the Tribe's ancestral lands. Both the Secretary of Interior and the Superior Court for the County of Inyo where the project is located have refused to stop the project. The Tribe is appealing the decision of the Superior Court to the California Court of Appeal, and is administratively challenging any further expansion of the CR Briggs/Canyon Resources mining operations and mining exploration in the Panamint Valley and Mountain Range. The mining companies plans are to destroy with cyanide gold mining all of the Tribe's ancestral lands and water resources in the Panamints creating an environmental disaster of massive proportions.
The Timbisha Shoshone Tribe took an official Tribal stance against the Yucca Mountain project in August, passing a resolution condemning the construction and implementation of both an interim and permanent facility on lands traditionally used by the Timbisha Shoshone located in Western Shoshone Territory. Congress may take action on the Yucca Mountain project before it adjourns this year. Both SB 1936 and HR1020 target Yucca Mountain to be the Nation's storage site for nuclear fuel rods, permitting the highest radiation level in the entire World some twenty miles from the Tribe. The Timbisha Shoshone people believe that the Yucca Mountain project will contaminate the Tribe's ancestral land and ground water, expose the Tribe and surrounding population areas to radiation both from the project and the transportation corridors necessary to move the fuel rods, and seriously impact the Tribe's Native lifeways and spiritual practices.
The Tribe has been in contact with Senator Boxer of California, and Senators Bryan and Reid of Nevada, who oppose the Yucca Mountain project. The Tribe's resolution and letters seeking congressional action to prevent this massive destruction of the environment, cultural and natural resources, and the Timbisha Shoshone people, are being circulated to all members of Congress.