Tribes Aim to Stop Mine Beneath Cabinet Mountain Wilderness

By Beacon Staff

PABLO – Members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are trying to prevent an underground copper and silver mine beneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness in northwestern Montana by getting a sacred peak designated in the National Register of Historic Places.

Francis Auld, Kootenai Tribe cultural preservation officer, said members are working to get 7,018-foot Chicago Peak recognized under the National Historic Preservation Act as a traditional cultural property.

“Chicago Peak is a very sacred site with many stories,” Auld said. “It is a place of sustenance and it is one of the last untouched places where the Kootenai can visit and reconnect with our cultural history. We don’t want to end up with a hollowed-out mountain.”

Spokane, Wash.-based Revett Minerals Inc. wants to mine up to 10,000 tons of copper and silver in the area. President John Shanahan said the company is sensitive to the concerns of tribal members. The mine entrance would be located outside the wilderness boundary, but mine shafts would tunnel beneath the wilderness and about 1,000 feet below the mountain.

“Designation or not, we have always been mindful of the area’s tribal heritage, and if there is a designation we will manage our project with that in mind,” Shanahan said.

The mine has also faced environmental challenges, and a Helena judge last summer ruled the mining company must go through a more rigorous permitting process before it can build the copper and silver mine. In November, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a federal judge’s dismissal of a lawsuit by environmentalists that contended the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service mistakenly concluded the mine would pose no risk to endangered bull trout and grizzly bears.

The estimated lifespan of the mine is 35 years, and would involve the construction of roads, power lines, pipelines, rail stations and a tailings treatment plan. Shanahan said none of that would be in the wilderness area.

The Kootenai National Forest has initiated an assessment of the site’s cultural significance, hiring an archaeologist from the University of Arizona’s School of Anthropology and Bureau of Applied Research to help determine whether Chicago Peak is eligible for listing. Maria Nieves Zedeno has been interviewing tribal elders and conducting field research.

“Today and in recent history, the Kootenai have used Chicago Peak for seeking visions, acquiring knowledge and fasting,” Zedeno said. “Right now, Chicago Peak is regarded by the Kootenai as the principal place for vision quests, so any activity that obstructs the peak, inhibits access or compromises its cultural significance is of grave concern to the tribe.”

Officials said recognition under the National Historic Preservation Act doesn’t mean the mine can’t go forward. But Auld said that if the mine is built, he would like the tribe to receive some form of cultural compensation.

“If I end up with a hollowed-out mountain, if I have to bend that far, I would like to have indefinite funding for cultural and language programs,” he said. “It might not fill the void that the mining extract creates in the mountain but at least it helps the hearts and minds of younger generations.”

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