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SILVER CITY, South Dakota — The moment the U.S. Forest Service posted its July notice of a draft decision to permit gold prospecting at Jenny Gulch here in the Black Hills, tribes, water protectors and treaty rights defenders turned out in droves to ward off the project and others like it.
The Black Hills make up a sky island of tree-clad mountain peaks in a sea of Northern Great Plains tall grass and farmlands. Long known as the He Sapa to the Native community, the 100- by 75-mile area is “the sacred heart of everything” for the Oceti Sakowin — only filched from tribal jurisdiction by treaty violation.
Native nations and citizen watchdogs were prepared to take action against the permitting, because this is not the first time the federal agency has moved to allow the renewal of large-scale mining at these headwaters of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.
Sign the petition to turn the Rapid Creek Watershed into a protected recreation area HERE
Four toxic Superfund sites are the result of water pollution from the mining over the past 70 years. Two generations of Lakota and settler descendants have worked across and through cultural differences to prevent any more of the same. Taxpayers already are footing the bill for the cleanup of hazardous heavy metals used in modern mining: cyanide, arsenic, chromium III and VI, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, selenium, silver, thallium, and zinc.
About $100 million of public money has been spent on runoff at just one of the sites, which generates approximately 95 million gallons of poisonous acid rock drainage a year. No end to the remediation is in view.
In response to the draft permit, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Chair Harold Frazier, who is the elected head of the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association, and other tribal leaders immediately met with Forest Service brass at U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s office in Washington, D.C.
A resulting missive to Vilsack demanded that the USDA withdraw “any and all gold mining-related approvals in the Jenny Gulch, including exploratory permits, because you have failed to obtain our consent in violation of Articles 2 and 16 the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty.”
The treaty “requires consent of the Great Sioux Nation for non-Indians even to be present in our territory, let alone to rape it by mineral extraction. The USDA and the USFS did not ask the Great Sioux Nation for consent on this mine, and you did not obtain it,” the letter states.
The Black Hills National Forest permit would allow Minneapolis-based F3 Gold LLC’s exploration near Silver City, an unincorporated community in the central Black Hills. The company would conduct diamond core drilling at 47 sites, punching an unknown number of holes, each up to a mile long, in unspecified directions.
The 62-square-mile Jenny Gulch Project would take place in a prized recreational spot. On July 10, Carol Hayse and Justin Herreman were among members of local grassroots organizations who put out the word about the threat. They attended a pie social, a fundraiser for the Silver City Volunteer Fire Department, to speak to neighbors and gather signatures opposing the permit.
The organizations the activists represent include the Black Hills Chapter of statewide Dakota Rural Action, Black Hills Clean Water Alliance, Save Rochford & Rapid Creek from Gold Mining, and Rapid Creek Watershed Action (RCWA). The latter takes its name from Rapid Creek, the lively river along which new upstream mining claims threaten to forever alter the water quality, supply, livelihoods, recreational opportunities, and historical preservation of secret historic ceremonial sites.
“We believe the economic value of that water far exceeds any value that our economy would see from mining the area, which is, in our opinion, too sensitive for us to do that and very likely would endanger our drinking water,” Herreman told The Esperanza Project.
Rapid Creek collects water from tributaries in the highest part of the Black Hills. Dams creating Deerfield and Pactola reservoirs serve to channel it to homes, businesses and farm-ranch operations in Rapid City, population 76,541, the largest town in the Black Hills area of influence. The creek and tributaries help recharge the Madison and Minnelusa aquifers, the other vital clean water source for the town and surrounding locations, including Ellsworth Air Force Base, the largest employer in the region.
Outdoor recreation business and related activities attract $2.27 billion annually to South Dakota, providing one of every four jobs in the western part of the state, RCWA reckons. The Black Hills area offers visitors lakes and streams for swimming, boating, kayaking, canoeing, floating, fishing, birding, picnicking, camping, winter sports and sightseeing. Tourism is second only to agriculture in importance for the state income.
The national non-profit American Rivers designated Rapid Creek one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers in 2020, due to the threat of mining megaprojects posed by prospecting and related water permits, including F3 Gold’s and others issued to the Canadian Mineral Mountain Resources Ltd.
“Mining could devastate Rapid Creek’s clean water, fish and wildlife and sacred cultural sites,” Chris Williams, senior vice president for conservation at American Rivers, said at the time. Among other things, tribal historical preservation surveys have yet to determine protected locations and a sensitive Bighorn sheep birthing area lies within F3 Gold’s tract.
Mineral Mountain Resources Ltd. already is exploring for gold, with bore holes as deep as a mile underground on claims spanning 7,500 acres upstream from Pactola Reservoir on Rapid Creek tributaries and adjacent to the tribal trust land of Pe’ Sla. Prospectors vow they will prove “North America’s Largest Gold Discovery.” They promise it could produce the equivalent in pay-dirt of the record-setting, now defunct nearby Homestake, once the biggest gold mine in the hemisphere.
The drillers on that project are sinking exploratory holes in the Rochford area. If a mine is established, untold damage will be done to land, wildlife and water, Sicangu Lakota great grandmother Cheryl Angel said in a national forum on July 18. “That’s the reason why I’m so worried. That’s why I literally hurt, and I’m so afraid that the watershed of Rapid Creek is going to be damaged, it’s gonna be contaminated, it’s gonna be harmed,” said the Rosebud Sioux tribal citizen.
“So, when people ask me about the Black Hills, I say it’s under attack and the water is under attack, because people are doing things that you wouldn’t do to a human being,” she said at an EcoSapiens Speaker Series event. “It’s an attack on the heart of everything that is.”
For drilling, South Dakota officials have granted Mineral Mountain Resources Ltd. 880,000 gallons of Rapid Creek water use, free of charge, at a peak pump rate of 200 gallons per minute and daily rate of 10,000 gallons. The water permit, issued without a public input process, provoked rural Rapid Creek resident Bruce Ellison to remark: “It is not in the public interest to give a foreign company our waters for, really, any uses without greater public input.”
As is occurring in the case of F3 Gold LLC, state and federal regulators are giving the green light to Mineral Mountain Resources Ltd. activity despite the opposition of tribal governments and individual tribal members. The permits for the Rochford Gold Project go against the stated positions of the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association, Rosebud Sioux tribal chair, Yankton Sioux tribal chair, Oglala Sioux tribal administration, and individual Cheyenne River Sioux tribal members, all of whom submitted written arguments to authorities.
Four tribal governments said that they wanted government-to-government consultation on the Forest Service Draft Environmental Assessment for the Jenny Gulch Project, but that did not happen. Many of the 500 comments submitted for the assessment noted that the Black Hills are Lakota territory by rights of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty as confirmed in a 1980 U.S. Supreme Court decision. The Forest Service declined to respond, directing attention instead to the 1872 Mining Law.
F3 Gold LLC, like other speculators, has a statutory right under that law to explore its mineral claim areas, the Forest Service said in releasing the draft decision to permit. “While the USFS cannot deny the company its right to explore for gold on their claim, the USFS can impose limitations which are reasonable and necessary to protect NFS lands and resources,” said Black Hills National Forest Supervisor Jeff Tomac.
Commenters who previously registered during the environmental assessment period for the Jenny Gulch Project received a 45-day notice to make additional remarks. “Hopefully, the Forest Service will take a stronger stance than it has in the past,” said the Black Hills Clean Water Alliance, for which Angel is a board member. This phase of the federal permitting is taking place under a different administration
These two companies, operating in the central Black Hills, are only a part of a much bigger picture of the local scene.
In the southern Black Hills, F3 Gold LLC also has a batch of lode claims. Another company is prospecting for lithium. Meanwhile a longstanding attempt to mine uranium is being held at bay by citizen action and Oglala Sioux Tribe litigation against the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. All these projects would sully the aquifers and related headwaters of the Cheyenne River, another tributary of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.
The results of a recent citizen mapping project led by Mato Ohitika Analytics LLC highlight “the vast extent of potential mining projects, as well as the modern gold rush that threatens Black Hills water, health, wildlife, and our recreation and tourism economy,” the Black Hills Clean Water Alliance said at a news conference in early 2022.
Even just one of six separate gold companies the organization pinpointed in the northern Black Hills, Dakota Territory Resources (or Dakota Gold Corp.) has more than 35,000 acres of claims. With many more left to map in the Maitland area between Spearfish and Central City, the alliance notes that this company has ties to Barrick Gold, the second largest gold company in the world.
In addition to the six companies already tracked, other operators are active in the immediate area. Spearfish Creek, the Northern Black Hills headwaters of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, is surrounded by claims. The mapping shows claims right up to the edges of the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway.
The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe passed a resolution earlier for funding to protect environment and cultural resources from the Rochford Gold Project. It calls upon the U.S. Congress to withdraw the Black Hills National Forest from the scope of the 1872 Mining Act and authorize an initial $200,000 of non-federal funds to fight the project.
The tribe approved another resolution calling on the federal government to provide funding for the Great Sioux Nation to employ professionals to investigate the environmental and archeological impact of the project. The tribal legislation also authorizes litigation regarding the operation.
Meanwhile, the grassroots organizers pursue a petition drive to convince South Dakota’s U.S. Congressional delegation to introduce a measure setting aside the Rapid Creek Watershed as a national recreation area. It concludes, “Please take leadership on this issue in Congress and sponsor a bill to create the recreation area and mineral claim withdrawal, so that we can be blessed with the use of this recreational resource for ourselves and for future generations.” Federal land managers currently oversee 40 national recreation areas across the country.
Among previously unmentioned organizations supporting the petition drive are Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation; NDN Collective; Protect Pactola; Izaak Walton League, Rapid City Chapter; Clean Water Legacy; Black Hills Paddlers; and Black Hills Group, Sierra Club.
Including the pie social, petition supporters had an intense week of campaigning outdoors in temperatures hovering around 90 degrees Fahrenheit, unusually hot for the northern high altitude summer. They took part in Rapid City’s annual Black Hills Pride Festival, sponsored by Black Hills Center for Equality.
Next up in the activities was entry in a parade at the southern Black Hills annual Gold Discovery Days in Custer. The event celebrates the first gold rush in the 19th Century, which led to dispossession of the Native territory. A military expedition headed by Lt. Col. George A. Custer proved gold finds were real, detonating the invasion.
The day after the parade, clean water advocates were at Pactola Lake on launches with signs to promote the cause.
Concerned citizens turned out to a county commission meeting in Rapid City to testify in favor of a proposed Hard Rock Zoning Ordinance. They have been providing input on it since they convinced the planning board to consider it more than a year ago. It would have stiffer exploration and mining requirements than the state does. When the commission set Sept. 6 for a hearing on it, they mobilized to gather public comment.
Organizers planned more events during summer outdoor gatherings leading up to the 2022 Mni Ki Wakan (Water is Sacred) Summit “to advance water justice for all” Aug. 16-18, at the civic center in Rapid City. Sponsors note they are promoting “youth-centered Indigenous water innovation.” To learn more about this go to https://mnikiwakan.org/
Co-Conveners include the Black Hills Clean Water Alliance, the Thunder Valley Community Development Corp., Cultural Survival, Navajo Water Project, DigDeep, Tokala Inanjinyo, Nakoda Youth Council, Sicangu Youth Council, and International Indigenous Youth Council Oglala Chapter.
“We’ve gotta stop this extraction,” Angel emphasized. “There’s a lot of work to be done. There’s a lot of alliances to be made. The first start is having a relationship with the land that you walk on, being committed to living in harmony,” she encouraged listeners. “I hope that for the benefit of our future dear grandchildren you make a lasting change.”