08/04/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT
SITTING IN HER TIDY LIVINGSTON, Mont., living room, Margaret Reeb would rather talk about flowers than politics. But ever since Bill Clinton came to nearby Yellowstone National Park last August, she hasn't had much time for gardening. Instead, Reeb, an 83-year-old retired English teacher, has been thwarting the will of the government of the most powerful nation on earth. "Oh, my," Reeb says with a chuckle. "What a pickle I'm in."
Nothing like the pickle the government is in. A year ago, President Clinton won the applause of environmentalists when he signed an agreement to buy or end leases on 25,000 acres on or near Henderson Mountain, thus ending a controversial mining project less than three miles north of Yellowstone. What appeared to be a government triumph, however, had one not-so-minor flaw: About 900 of those acres belonged to Margaret Reeb. The Crown Butte mining company, which owned the rest of the land and had leased Reeb's mineral-rich chunk, negotiated with the U.S. and environmentalists, apparently assuming Reeb would be willing to make a deal. Big mistake. "I made it quite clear when I leased it in 1989," says Reeb, "the land isn't for sale." Not even to the United States of America.
The battle of Henderson Mountain had been raging since the late '80s, when Crown Butte, a Canadian mining company, announced plans to dig gold and silver worth an estimated $600 million or more from the mountain. But the mammoth project riled environmental groups, who argued that the proposed mine would generate toxic waste that could seep into Yellowstone's waterways. The mining company claimed it could keep the waste contained, and the factions spent the '90s trading charges both in the courts and in the media. "We were being hammered," says Karl Elers, chairman of the company that owns Crown Butte. "It looked hopeless."
When the Department of the Interior agreed to trade $65 million worth of federal land for Crown Butte's holdings, the dispute seemed finally to have been resolved. "Yellowstone is more precious than gold," proclaimed Clinton, whose announcement at a creekside ceremony in the park coincided nicely with the first day of the Republican National Convention in San Diego. "What a happy day."
But not for Reeb, who says that until then she had known nothing of the agreement. She claims Crown Butte executives never consulted her. "It's like someone rented a car from Hertz and drove it across the street to sell it," she says.
For someone with prospecting blood in her veins, the proposed sale, says Reeb, was a violation of her birthright. The older of two children born to George Reeb, a Livingston prospector and mining foreman, and his wife, Ingebord, a homemaker, Reeb grew up hearing tales of the pioneer days in the 1880s, when George came to Montana to stake a claim. He worked the land until his death in 1941, when it was inherited by Margaret, who, after earning undergraduate degrees in English, history and art and then a master's degree in English from the University of Montana at Missoula, went on to a teaching career. Even after she moved to Phoenix to teach, she put her savings into land near her family's original stake. "All those prospectors toiled in those mountains, and I wanted to preserve their dreams," explains Reeb, who never married, but helped raise a houseful of nieces and nephews. "Those beautiful old people had an appreciation for the beauty of that country—the possibility and promise."
To Reeb, that promise includes the chance to dig gold out of the land. "I've always insisted I do not favor a mine if it imposed any danger to the environment," she says, but she also believes the hills should remain private property, available for mining if and when their treasure can be removed safely.
Even as everyone involved in the agreement commends Reeb's values and intentions, few are happy with the way she has stymied the government's land deal. "It's bad news," says James Pipkin, chief counsel for the Secretary of the Interior, who says the agreement will have to be scuttled or at least renegotiated. But fewer still believe Reeb's land will ever be mined—especially if the government, which hasn't yet decided on its next step, buys the much larger Crown Butte holding. "Miss Reeb needs to understand that mine will never operate on the hills near Yellowstone," says Mike Clark, executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, an environmental protection group.
Reeb refuses to argue the point. Her land will remain private, she says, just as long as flowers continue to grow on it. "They're not frail flowers," she says. "They prevail."
PETER AMES CARLIN
DAN BURKHART in Livingston