Rio Tinto works to donate Ryan Camp to the National Park Service.
Oct. 11, 2007 Death Valley National Park Superintendent James T. Reynolds sent a letter to Rio Tinto Minerals expressing a proposal for the preservation and interpretation of the historic Ryan town site.
Superintendent Reynolds was keenly aware of the significant history of Ryan and how it is closely tied to Death Valley National Park. The owners of Ryan had ensured that Ryan, as a standing legacy to borax mining, was not only intact but was in a condition that would allow for an almost immediate use by the public. It would offer the visitor a true step back in time and allow them to be immersed in the excitement, dreams, ambitions and fears of the early mining pioneers.
The National Park Service (NPS) was extremely interested in the acquisition of Ryan or to work cooperatively and in partnership with Rio Tinto Minerals in the management of Ryan for their mutual benefit and the benefit of the public.
The staff at Death Valley National Park saw many creative possibilities and uses for Ryan Camp. Its rich mining history is closely tied to the park’s resources related to historic borax mining which is also one of the park’s dominant interpretive themes. Harmony Borax Works was one of the first successful borax operations within the park and the Billie Mine located immediately adjacent to Ryan Camp represents the last of the operating borax mines within the Death Valley Region.
The American Borate Company, owner of the Billie Mine, was in the process of donating the mine, land and a significant amount of mining equipment to the park. The Harmony Borax Works and the Billie Mine represent the beginning and the end of borax mining in the park and the acquisition of Ryan Camp would present the park with an unprecedented opportunity to preserve the complete historic continuum of borax mining within the Death Valley region.
Superintendent Reynolds also highlighted that the close proximity of the Ryan Camp facilities to the Billie Mine and associated mining equipment would create a unique concentration of mining history that could become an accessible and focused visitor attraction and interpretive and educational center. The opportunities would have been nearly limitless.
Some of the educational opportunities included wayside exhibits describing mining history, a self guided “GPS Ranger” program with a focused theme on the region’s mining history, educational classrooms and children’s activities that would teach a younger generation about mining history. It was also envisioned that Ryan Camp could have its own “living history” program much like Scotty’s Castle has in the north end of the park. The reestablishment of the historic Baby Gauge railroad to provide additional visitor opportunities was also envisioned.
In addition to the public and educational opportunities Ryan Camp provided many other creative uses. Those included a field research center, overnight accommodations for researchers and school groups of all ages, and an auditorium, classroom and library facilities. Universities had also expressed a very real opportunity to create a program for the historic preservation of Ryan Camp.
Superintendent Reynolds concluded the proposal by saying that many preliminary discussions with potential partners had already occurred and that the park was in a position to quickly implement their ideas and move beyond the concept phase and provide a strategy for the long term preservation and use of Ryan Camp.
Rio Tinto accepted the proposal and the Rio Tinto Ryan (US Borax) Historic District were formed between Rio Tinto Minerals and the NPS. Progress was being made very quickly and much of that had to do with the potential sale of US Borax and the Borax employees passionate about the preservation of Ryan Camp wanted to make something happen soon. Superintendent Reynolds was also working with Jonathan Jarvis, the Director of the NPS, to use his experience in acquiring properties such as Ryan Camp.
By April 2008 the process was in full swing. In a meeting between Rio Tinto and the NPS, representatives from Rio Tinto compared the Ryan Camp donation to Death Valley National Park to that of the donation of the historic mining town of Kennecott to the Wrangell – St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska.
Judith Brown, Director of Government Affairs for Rio Tinto Minerals, was coordinating the effort to donate Ryan Camp to the park. Brown supplied draft language authorizing the change in the park boundaries which would have allowed the park to accept the donation. She also conducted an introductory meeting with Senator Feinstein’s (D-CA) Natural Resource Counsel, John Watts, in Washington D.C. in regards to Congressional authorization. Brown also discussed how to best conduct the Phase I Environmental Assessment of the property.
Rio Tinto Minerals also prepared a Scope of Work listing the steps for the donation and published an eight page document outlining the public benefits of the Ryan Camp donation to the NPS.
A conference call was held June 20, 2008 between Director of the NPS Jonathan Jarvis, Chief of the NPS Pacific Land Resources Program Center Gregory Gress, Superintendent James T. Reynolds, Judith Brown with Rio Tinto Government Affairs, and several others to discuss Rio Tinto’s donation of Ryan Camp to the NPS.
The proposed donation consisted of 14 buildings with approximately 23,500 square feet on a 60 acre parcel. It was also noted that the company was for sale and there was a sense of urgency to finalize the donation in order to preserve the important and historic site of Ryan Camp, the view shed and the mining history in the Death Valley national Park vicinity.
This top level group then set the next steps to be completed. Rio Tinto would complete an initial level 1 and level 2 environmental studies to determine contaminant issues. The potential donation in the area of 60 to 360 acres would be finalized. A condition assessment of the physical assets and structures would be completed. Title reports would be gathered. Follow up would be conducted with Senator Feinstein’s office to assure support of the donation. Financial and operational analysis would be conducted and the donation of Navel Springs, a pre-1914 water rights claim owned by Rio Tinto located in the park and used as the water supply for Ryan Camp, would be explored.
While the work to donate Ryan Camp to the NPS continued the staff at Death Valley National Park met with two individuals who were interested in forming a brand new partnership with the park.
July 1, 2008 Preston Chiaro and Henry Golas met with park Superintendent James T. Reynolds, several park staff and Ray Murray with the Pacific West Region NPS. In the meeting Golas indicated that the new group would be known as the Death Valley Fund and that it was incorporated Feb. 11, 2008. The Death Valley Fund was receiving legal support from the firm of Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher and they were about to apply for a 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. In the meantime the Death Valley Fund was using the National Park Foundation for status and account donor management service. The founding Board of the Death Valley Fund consisted of Preston Chiaro as President and Henry Golas as Secretary and Treasurer. At the time of this meeting Preston Chiaro was the Chief Executive of Energy and Minerals with Rio Tinto.
Golas also explained in the meeting that the Death Valley Fund had received a $100,000 gift from the Offield Family Foundation to establish a Devils Hole Pupfish Research Fund. Golas also noted that the organization raised $202,000 to date which was or would be on deposit.
The park provided Golas and Chiaro with several park business projects and opportunities one of which included an update on the donation of Ryan Camp to the NPS from Rio Tinto.
The work on the Ryan Camp donation project continued and July 20, 2008 Superintendent James T. Reynolds sent a document to Senator Feinstein on the boundary adjustment for the Ryan Camp donation. The report identified key points, the background on the project as well as the current status.
During the meetings between Rio Tinto and the NPS, Rio Tinto made it known that Rio Tinto was going to sell its mineral units and that could include Ryan Camp. Rio Tinto staff wished to complete the donation of Ryan Camp to the park before that happened.
Nov. 14, 2008, the Thomas Reuters Deals Group PeHUB reported that Rio Tinto was starting the sale of its minerals group which consisted of its market-leading talcs and borates businesses. It was hoped that this deal would be a small step toward Rio Tinto’s plans to sell $15 billion of assets to repay debt while it also fought off an unsolicited takeover from rival BHP Billiton worth some $60 billion. At this time Rio Tinto Borax was supplying nearly half of the world’s refined borates, minerals used in fiberglass, detergents and ceramics. PeHUB also reported that Rio Tinto declined to comment.
PeHUB then reported Jan. 9, 2009 a Chinese company and private equity firms were among the groups expected to submit final bids for Rio Tinto’s borates and talc units for a potential $1 billion deal. Rio Tinto, which was also the world’s number two mining company at the time was cutting 14,000 jobs and cutting capital spending by more than half. By this time BHP Billiton had ended its hostile takeover bid of Rio Tinto.
Many things were put on hold for the NPS during the last several months of 2008 because of the presidential campaign. This included work on the Ryan Camp donation project.
On Jan. 3, 2009, Death Valley National Park Superintendent James T. Reynolds retired after a career that spanned close to 40 years in dozens of national parks. Reynolds later went on to serve as a Board member of National Parks Conservation Association. Sue Husari was appointed as the Acting Superintendent of Death Valley National Park.
The newly appointed superintendent of Death Valley National Park would be Sarah Craighead, a 30-year veteran of the park service. Craighead was coming from Saguaro National Park in Arizona and wouldn’t officially begin her new appointment in Death Valley until March 23, 2009.
Feb. 6, 2009 Acting Superintendent Husari wrote to Superintendent Craighead declaring that the issue of the week in Death Valley has been the addition of Ryan Camp to the park. Husari also noted that since post inauguration, all the projects that had been put on hold during the campaign were active again.
Husari informed Craighead that Senator Feinstein’s office wanted to know if the NPS still wanted Ryan Camp so they could proceed with the boundary adjustment attached to a bill. Husari then prepared this Ryan Camp Update.
Feb. 25, 2009 Judith Brown with Rio Tinto wrote to Holly Bundock, Assistant Regional Director of NPS Public Affairs, to clear up some confusion about the Ryan Camp donation. Brown explained that with everything that is happening in the company with respect to the divestment, she was not authorized to expend any more funds on Ryan Camp. Rio Tinto had hoped to have the donation process well established for the purpose of a new owner or for the parent company so there would be little opportunity for the donation to be sidetracked after the Rio Tinto Minerals divestment.
Brown warned that since that goal had not been met, NPS should anticipate that there will be a need to deal with new management after the divestment. She added that the more progress made on the donation with the current company management would increase the chances for a successful donation of Ryan Camp to NPS.
There were three significant issues remaining in the donation process. Those were the environmental assessment, the condition assessment and mineral rights.
Rio Tinto had completed the Phase 1 environmental assessment and the status of the Phase 2 assessment needed to be clarified. There was also a question as to who would be completing the condition assessment. On the mineral rights, there was a concern over the assets slated for donation. Rio Tinto originally only wanted to donate Ryan Camp and the 40 acres that comprise that parcel. Jarvis and Reynolds had asked that the donation be expanded to include the complete 360 acres and all mineral rights which Rio Tinto valued at close to $60 million.
Sarah Craighead started work as superintendent in Death Valley National Park March 23, 2009. That week Brown and other representatives from Rio Tinto Minerals went to the park to meet with Craighead and other park staff.
Lauren Newman, a Concessions Management Specialist at Death Valley National Park, prepared a briefing memo and a copy of the Ryan Camp proposal for Superintendent Craighead in preparation for the meeting with Rio Tinto.
The briefing memo was based on past emails and conversations with people in the park. It was noted that the NPS Pacific West Regional Office in San Francisco had taken an increased role in the Ryan Camp donation process in the past several months and was dealing directly with Rio Tinto. Newman also noted that Rio Tinto had employed a caretaker at Ryan Camp since 1950 when Ryan Camp closed to the public and current annual expenditures for Ryan were running close to $350,000.
It was also noted that for the previous two years Rio Tinto was struggling financially and they might be less willing to partner with the park in the way NPS had previously discussed. It was also thought that Rio Tinto was interested in a tax write-off for the donation that they estimated to be worth $60 million.
The Pacific West Regional Office was initially concerned about acquiring Ryan Camp if it required a base budget increase to Death Valley National Park but it was not that much of an issue at this time. But the office did want to know the complete financial implications of the donation.
The meeting took place the week of March 23, 2009 between Superintendent Craighead and the representatives from Rio Tinto Minerals. Also in attendance was Kelly Johnson with Holland and Hart LLP of Washington DC. Ms. Johnson’s firm provides legal and strategic advice on federal legislative and regulatory issues originating from Congress, the White House, executive branch agencies and the courts. Ms. Kelly offered her assistance on the donation of Ryan Camp including answering questions on the associated mineral rights and their discussions with Congress.
Things appeared to be relaxing some for the Ryan Camp donation process when one of the Rio Tinto staff reported to the park staff May 22, 2009 that Borax was pulled off the sales block and that the management of Ryan Camp would remain the same as it had been.
May 25, 2009 The Sidney Morning Herald in Australia reported that Rio Tinto had taken its borates business off the market after the sales process failed to achieve “acceptable” values. The sale process continued for other businesses market for divestment including the talc unit. The news came amid growing evidence of a reversal by Rio Tinto and Chinalco over the Chinese state-owned company’s controversial $US 19.5 billion ($25 billion) bail-out of the mining group.
The report went on to say that Rio Tinto is selling assets, cutting 14,000 workers and curbing spending to help meet its commitment to repay $US 10 billion of debt that year. The borates unit, which included California’s largest open pit borate mine in Boron, and the talc unit were expected to attract bids worth more than $US 1 billion.
June 10, 2009 Judith Brown with Rio Tinto told Superintendent Craighead that Rio Tinto would be happy to pay for the full cost of the condition assessment. Craighead told Brown that the park was working on hiring a contractor for the condition assessment and estimates looked to be $30,000.
June 18, 2009 was a day several emails were exchanged between Rio Tinto and NPS in regards to land that was proposed to be included in the Park boundary adjustment for the donation of Ryan Camp. Brown said that she got a map from the NPS regional office that showed Rio Tinto mineral deposits much further out and away from Ryan Camp on BLM land and that Rio Tinto would oppose that adjustment.
Gregory Gress, Chief of the NPS Pacific Land Resource Program Center, reached out to BLM and others to address the concerns of Rio Tinto and correct the problem. Gress noted that not all the surrounding BLM lands or interests actually belong to BLM and the boundary adjustment lines were drawn so close as to cause Rio Tinto concerns in being able to access their claims. Gress asked Rio Tinto to map the holdings and setbacks they wished to have excluded. Gress agreed with Brown that he didn’t think NPS would want to include the additional claims either.
By mid afternoon on the same day, John Stark with Death Valley National Park, sent an email to park staff noting that the White Monster claim and ore deposit is in the park near the old Sigma open pit mine. Stark added that there is still a lot of ore at the White Monster claim and that Superintendent Reynolds may have wanted some way to prevent mining there in the future.
A short time later Stark sent another email to park staff listing several points on how the White Monster claim ties to Ryan Camp. “1. Rio Tinto wants to mine it someday (it’s worth 6 to 12 billion). 2. It is inside the park. 3. Rather than access it by way of the Dante’s View road they would like to access it from somewhere in the area near Ryan Camp. 4. They wanted to make sure the donation of the land in the Ryan Camp area did not block the access route they had planned. 5. While the park would rather not have a giant open pit in the future the park would still prefer that if they do they access it from the area near Ryan Camp like they are proposing. 6. There appear to be only two existing roads at this time that cross over the park boundary from the east and go west toward the White Monster area. The Ryan Camp road is one of them. Both roads dead end though just east of the boundary.”
Gregory Gress replied to Stark that he looked more closely at the ownership maps of the area and believed that Rio Tinto was objecting to being surrounded and potentially constrained in their ability to access and maneuver. Gress agreed that they should try to keep the boundary change simple.
July 6, 2009 Preston Chiaro and Henry Golas from the newly formed Death Valley Fund met again with the staff of Death Valley National park. They were meeting this time with Superintendent Sarah Craighead. Also present was the NPS Pacific West Region Partnership Program Chief Ray Murray, present at the first Fund meeting July 1, 2008.
Chiaro and Golas introduced themselves and provided a verbal report on the status of the Fund. It was also noted that the Fund is “legal” now and is officially incorporated. Chiaro and Golas also clarified how the Death Valley Conservancy is organized. The Conservancy is non-Park specific and supports Death Valley wide projects. The Death Valley Fund, a component of the Conservancy, specifically supports Park projects.
Golas mentioned his efforts to date as cultivating friends and supporters of the Park and the Fund, working on web and technology development, working with a Los Angeles area Public Broadcasting Service station to air Fund promotions, and that funds were provided to install wayside exhibits outside of the park at the Amargosa Opera House at Death Valley Junction.
Murray provided an overview of the differences between the Fund and the Death Valley Natural History Association. The Fund is generally a “fund raiser,” whereas the Death Valley Natural History Association directly supports park education efforts. Murray suggested coming up with a “menu” of projects and programs that meet the goals for both the Fund and Death Valley Natural History Association. The meeting concluded with the next meeting to be scheduled later in the year.
July 21, 2009, 15 days after the Death Valley Conservancy met with Superintendent Craighead, Chief Murray and park staff members, Superintendent Craighead received a phone call from Rio Tinto in the morning advising that Rio Tinto made the decision to not donate Ryan Camp to the park service. Emails were sent to stop the condition assessment as to not waste government funding on a site the park service was not going to acquire.
July 23, 2009 Craighead emailed James T. Reynolds to report the bad news. It is noted in the email that apparently Golas convinced Chiaro that Ryan Camp had to go to the Death Valley Fund. Because of changes in Rio Tinto, Chiaro was managing minerals which included Ryan Camp; therefore, he had the ability to stop the donation to NPS.
Judith Brown with Rio Tinto also called Craighead with the news. Brown reported that apparently everyone that had been working on it was just dumbstruck. The good news was that apparently Rio Tinto is willing to set up an endowment so that the Death Valley Fund has the money to keep Ryan Camp up. Craighead concluded that it was very disappointing. Lots of people, including the folks at Rio Tinto, worked a long time to get Ryan Camp to the park service.
July 24, 2009 Craighead sent an email to park staff. She told them that Rio Tinto had decided to donate Ryan Camp to the Death Valley Fund and that the decision came from the highest levels of the company. Rio Tinto will be developing an endowment that will assist the Fund with the upkeep of Ryan but beyond that she didn’t know their plans beyond the fact that they want to preserve it.
Craighead hoped to be able to interpret Ryan Camp and use it in the future if the Fund is able to bring the structures up to code so that it is safe for visitors to use. Craighead concluded by saying that Senator Feinstein had been working on a bill that would add some Wilderness areas to the park and that the park had asked that Ryan Camp be included in that. The park asked that they continue to include Ryan Camp just in case the donation to the Fund doesn’t work out. But it was not known if that part could be left in.
July 29, 2009 Judith Brown, Rio Tinto Minerals, emailed James Peterson, Deputy State Director for Senator Feinstein, to inform him about the recent development. Brown indicated that Rio Tinto decided to donate and self fund the Ryan Camp preservation through a Death Valley area nonprofit, the Death Valley Conservancy. Rio Tinto felt that would relieve the park from an additional budget constraint and that donating to a nonprofit already working with the park would be a viable and agreeable outcome. Brown added “We were a bit surprised by it ourselves as the decision was made from the top in London, but Rio Tinto felt that it was important to ensure the right resources were in place for preservation of Ryan Camp.”
Peterson asked Brown if it was the Conservancy’s intention to donate the land to the park or to maintain it as private land themselves. Brown related that she believed it was the intention of the Conservancy to hold Ryan Camp as private land. The actual transfer of Ryan Camp to the Death Valley Conservancy will be handled at this point by Bill Adams, head of Rio Tinto Assets Under Management Group.
Information Sources and Credits:
- Copies of reports, documents and electronic media provided by the National Park Service.
- Copies of emails, reports, documents and electronic media obtained from the National Park Service under Freedom of Information Act requests.
- Reuters PE HUB (www.pehub.com)
- The Sidney Morning Herald (www.smh.com.au)
- Photograph of Superintendent James T. Reynolds by Jonas Karlsson.
- Photographs of Director Jon Jarvis and Superintendent Sarah Craighead courtesy of the National Park Service.
- The Official Photograph of Senator Dianne Feinstein.
- Photograph of Preston Chiaro courtesy of Rio Tinto Minerals.
- Maps courtesy of the National Park Service.
- All other photographs by the author.