The Senator, the Star, and One Big Gold Mine

Over the past three or four weeks letters from Robert Redford have been dropping softly into the mailboxes of the A-list Hollywood liberals. The 10-paragraph letter flails at Republican plans to rape the environment, and concludes with an urgent plea to send money to the Montana Democrat, Senator Max Baucus.

"It is important," Redford writes, "to rally around key leaders who share our commitment to maintaining the integrity of our public lands and the safety of our land, air, water and food." By letter's end Redford has managed to convey the impression that Baucus is up there with John Muir and Rachel Carson as a guardian angel of green America. A significant contribution, Redford urges, would "help Max and the environmental health and safety issues critical to the kind of future we envision for ourselves and generations to come."

If Baucus needs a star to rouse the Hollywood liberals, Robert Redford is certainly the ideal man to pitch his virtues. Redford lives on a ranch in Utah's Wasatch Mountains. He has established his own environmental foundation, Sundance, and has offered himself as an impresario for environmental dispute resolution. Since he filmed Norman Maclean's trout-fishing novel A River Runs Through It, Redford has made the sanctity of wild rivers a particular concern. The Sundance Foundation has given large amounts of money to Blackfoot Challenge, an organization set up to protect and restore Montana's Blackfoot River, the stream that runs through Maclean's book.

By the time Redford came to Montana to make A River Runs Through It, the Blackfoot River had been badly trashed by logging and by a big mine run by ASARCO. There were few trout left and the river's canyon was heavily scarred with clearcuts. So Redford shot many of the film's scenes on the Yellowstone and Gallatin rivers further south.

Over the past few years, though, the Blackfoot River started to heal, thanks largely to the aggressive work of local environmental groups, such as the Clark Fork Coalition and the Montana Environmental Information Center. Through lawsuits and citizen campaigns these organizations forced ASARCO, a multinational mining enterprise with a grim eco-rapsheet, finally to begin a cleanup of its toxic mine site. Now some cutthroat and bull trout runs have returned to what Maclean christened Montana's "holy waters."

Then last summer, Phelps Dodge, the mining colossus, announced it would soon begin work on what it heralded as the largest open-pit gold mine in North America. The mine, dubbed the Seven Up-Pete, will be located in the headwaters of the Blackfoot River, where it tumbles out of the Scapegoat Wilderness to join the Lander's Fork. By the time the mine is tapped out there will be a hole in the earth a square mile across and a thousand feet deep. This monstrous cavity will rival the Berkeley Pit outside Butte, a hundred miles or so to the southwest.

At Phelps Dodge's Seven Up-Pete mine, nearly a billion tons of dirt and rocks will be gouged and blasted out, crushed, dumped into heaps, and then saturated by water laced with cyanide, a process that leaches small flecks of gold from tons of rock. Already, exploratory excavations at the site have resulted in the dumping of millions of gallons of arsenic and lead-contaminated water into the Blackfoot River.

"The Blackfoot was coming back to life," explains Karen Knudsen of the Missoula-based Clark Fork Coalition. "But this mine, with its toxic sediments, acid drainage, and 600-foot-tall waste piles, virtually assures the death of the river."

Phelps Dodge and its partner, Canyon Resources, expect to gross $4 billion from the mine. If the price of gold rises, the haul may soar to as much as $10 billion. More than 80 percent of the gold extracted from the site will be used to make trinkets and jewelry. And when the gold runs out in 12 years, the companies will leave behind cyanide-sodden dirt for all eternity, just a few feet from what will by then be the lifeless waters of the Blackfoot River. When the Anaconda Copper Company abandoned the Berkeley mine, it left behind a $1 billion price tag for cleanup of toxic mining wastes.

Part of the land alongside the Blackfoot now scheduled for extinction by the mine belongs to the Sieben Company, an 80,000-acre sheep ranch owned by the Baucus family. The Baucus clan now stands to make a great deal of money, since the Sieben Ranch will take home 5 percent of the value of any minerals extracted from their land. The family will also be compensated for the cyanide heap-leach piles, waste pits, and smelters constructed on their property.

The Sieben Ranch is managed by the Senator's brother, John Baucus Jr., who also serves as president of the Montana Wool Growers Association. The Senator maintains a financial interest in the ranch and receives regular dividend checks from the company.  

Given the awesome amount of boodle due to be collected by the Baucus family, it is not hard to understand why the three-term senator, formerly chairman and now ranking Democratic member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, has never uttered a cautionary word about the Phelps Dodge mine, despite widespread outrage from ranchers, environmentalists, and business leaders across Montana. Indeed, in his 18 years in the U.S. Senate, Baucus has not displayed the slightest interest in taking on the mining companies. The Senator has described himself as an unrepentant "friend of mining."

What is truly hard to understand, however, is why Robert Redford would ever, under any circumstances, try to portray Max Baucus as a friend of the environment. Redford, after all, serves as a trustee of the Natural Resources Defense Council and has been an eloquent critic of federal land policy, particularly the noxious effects of cyanide heap-leach gold mining. In a recent speech before the National Press Club, Redford spoke out passionately against the mining companies: "I can only believe that their bottom lines will win out over the health of our lands and our people. I've already seen enough bright orange rivers with no fish, thanks to mining companies who swore their operations were safe--like the Blackfoot, for example, in Montana."

During the very same weeks Redford's letter was circulating in the sunrooms of Brentwood and Malibu, Baucus was shepherding through the Senate a rewrite of the Safe Drinking Water Act which will allow more toxins and carcinogens, such as radon and arsenic, into the nation's water supplies. Indeed, across the length and breadth of Congress it is impossible to uncover a more tenacious front man for the mining, timber, and grazing industries.

It was Baucus who singlehandedly crushed the Clinton administration's timid effort in 1993 to reform federal mining and grazing policy and terminate below-cost timber sales to big timber companies subsidized by the taxpayers. Baucus engineered a session at the White House with Mack McLarty, Clinton's then-chief of staff, and emerged boasting that this was the last time the Clinton crowd would dare to try and cram public land reforms down Western throats.

Nothing new here. Max Baucus has bailed out Western timber and mining industries on numerous occasions. Back in 1990, Baucus provided the decisive vote when the Senate killed a bipartisan effort to place a moratorium on the sale of mineral-rich federal lands to multinational mining companies for $5 an acre. Baucus has also helped squash repeated attempts to impose a royalty on federal lands mining. This cozy arrangement has allowed mining conglomerates, like the Canadian-owned Barrick Resources, to pay the federal treasury less than $10,000 for more than $10 billion in gold.

"The Baucus family made sure it received a 5 percent royalty on minerals extracted from their property," said Jim Jensen, director of the Helena-based Montana Environmental Information Center. "Apparently, Senator Baucus doesn't believe the American people deserve the same return from the destruction of their public lands."

Baucus also has a deep personal interest in the present perquisites of the Western ranching industry. The Baucus family's Sieben Ranch is one of the largest sheep operations in North America, and it enjoys an exceptionally close and profitable relationship with public grazing lands adjacent to the ranch and administered by the U.S. Forest Service. Here, Baucus sheep graze for only 22 cents per animal per month, less than a fifth of the going rate on private lands. In the early 1980s, the Senate Ethics Committee censured Baucus for introducing a bill to restrict the import of lambs from Canada and New Zealand, a move designed to boost prices for domestic sheep. The Committee cited Baucus's financial stake in the family sheep ranch as a conflict of interest.

One of the grazing permits held by the Sieben Ranch is in the Helena National Forest. This wild landscape is home to the threatened grizzly bear, fewer than 800 of which now survive in the Lower 48. The Baucus family ranch holds one of Montana's only remaining sheep grazing permits in critical grizzly habitat. This is not a happy situation for the bears, since they like to eat sheep; when they do, the ranch manager calls in the government hunter, who duly shoots the perpetrator with sodium pentothal and exiles the bear to another area. If the bear returns, as they often do, they are either captured and placed in a zoo or, more typically, just killed. It's why sheep grazing permits have been denied in other federal forests in Montana occupied by grizzlies.  

A Forest Service official at Helena National Forest told us that at least eight grizzlies had been killed over the years on Sieben Ranch allotments, making it one of the most lethal lands for grizzlies in the Northern Rockies. Bill Haskins, director of the Missoula-based Ecology Center, described the Baucus grazing allotment as "a sink for grizzlies." So as far as Ursus horribilis is concerned, then, Baucus spells nemesis.

Yet grizzlies are not the only endangered species threatened by the Sieben Ranch. In September 1994, a female wolf was killed on Baucus lands by government trappers working for Animal Damage Control. The death of the wolf was a violation of the Endangered Species Act, though no action was taken against the trappers or the Sieben Ranch. Baucus has been a frequent critic of the Endangered Species Act, and in 1992 introduced a rewrite of the law, which, among other weakening changes, would have made it easier for ranchers to kill endangered species that threaten their livestock.

In his war with the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, which has been battling to protect the 6 million acres of wild land in Montana's national forests, Baucus has played hardball. When Rep. Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts promised to sponsor the Alliance's visionary legislation, the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, which preserves all wildland and wildlife habitat on public lands in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, Baucus counterattacked by using his power as chairman of the Public Works Committee to withhold funds for the cleanup of Boston Harbor until Kennedy backed off.

"That act of political intimidation tells you everything you need to know about Max Baucus's attitude toward the environment," says Mike Bader, director of the Missoula-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies. "Baucus was willing to keep the Boston Harbor a filthy mess in order to make sure public forests and rivers in Montana continue to be destroyed by multinational timber companies."

The Senator has also made great media play with the Alliance's use of Hollywood celebrities, such as Woody Harrelson and Glenn Close, to promote its campaign for the ecosystem. "National money, glitz, and glamour are reaching into Montana," the man who has retained Robert Redford as a fundraiser warned in June 1992. "These interests, mostly based out of California, are doing all they can to see that Montana's 12-year civil war over the wilderness issue continues on and on."

Max Baucus wants the wilderness war to end quickly, in a rout for the timber industry. When he was thus denouncing the Alliance's plan to protect the wildlands of the Northern Rockies, Baucus himself was trying to
push through a bill which consigned 96 percent of Montana's federal forests to clearcutting by transnational corporations such as
Plum Creek, a big contributor to Baucus's campaigns.

Baucus's bill, which he cosponsored with Montana's Republican Senator, Conrad Burns, contained what's known as sufficiency language, which would have made it impossible for citizens to enforce federal environmental laws--like the Endangered Species Act--that Baucus's timber program would breach. Al Gore, then a senator from Tennessee, denounced Baucus's bill on the floor of the Senate as an assault on the constitutional right of citizens to challenge illegal activities of the government.

This legislative tool has lately been adopted by the Republican Congress with devastating results. Take this summer's Budget Rescissions Act, which contained a rider that requires the Forest Service to sell 4.5 billion board feet of timber from the national forests and exempts the sales from compliance with all environmental laws. Many of those clearcuts are slated for the wilds of Montana. Baucus, of course, voted for the bill, and Bill Clinton signed it into law.

Baucus scarcely needs money from
the Hollywood liberals. In his last race,
in 1990, he was the second-largest recipient
of PAC money in the U.S. Senate: $1.86 million in a state with fewer than 500,000 registered voters. It's an achievement about which he feels no shame. In 1991, at his 50th birthday party, Baucus donned a leather jacket, mounted a Harley, and rode down the steps of the Capitol to the strains of "The Leader of the Pack."

Of course Max Baucus is looking for money from the Hollywood liberals. But he's also looking for political cover. The big question is why Robert Redford is providing it for him. Redford has not answered specific requests to explain his support for Baucus. A friend has suggested that his rationale might be that Democrats rape the environment less harshly than Republicans. It's hard to believe this with any intensity as old growth forests, protected by court order in the Bush years, now buzz with chain saws unleashed by Clinton's signature on the Rescissions Bill. But here's the Sundance Kid, not even excusing Baucus as the lesser of two evils but hailing him as a true friend of nature. Redford should go back to the Blackfoot and take one last look.

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