In ‘Roughing it’ Mark Twain depicts the methods used in his era to mine such ‘hardrock’ minerals as gold, silver and copper: ‘Imagine a stranger staking out a mining claim among the costly shrubbery in your front yard and calmly proceeding to lay waste the ground with pick and shovel and blasting powder.’

He wrote these words in 1872, the year Congress enacted ‘The General Mining Law.’ Much has changed since then. Now, instead of picks, shovels, and blasting powder, hardrock miners lay waste to your land with bulldozers, backhoes, draglines and dynamite.

What hasn’t changed is the law. It still allows a company or individual, foreign or domestic, to stake an unlimited number of claims on public land and extract precious metals belonging to all Americans. The law even lets miners purchase public land for 1872 prices ($2.50 an acre). (Although Congress has imposed a moratorium on such bargain sales, the 1872 act remains the law of the land).

Unlike other extractive industries – assessed 8 to 16.7 percent of value for such valuable public-domain resources as timber, coal, oil, and gas – hardrock-mining companies pay no royalties. They are the worst industrial polluters in America, spewing 58 toxins into air and water, including cadmium, arsenic, cyanide, mercury and lead. And they don’t always have to clean up their messes. Frequently they declare bankruptcy and bolt.

While all legislative attempts to reform the law have been shouted down, modest controls were implemented by the Clinton administration to the limited extent possible under existing regulations.

Enter the administration of George W. Bush, a rest home for retired mining-industry Pooh-Bahs, such as Interior Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles. While serving as the president’s chief mine regulator, Griles met at least three times with the National Mining Association, the industry group fighting to preserve the 1872 Mining Law. In his former life as a mining-industry lobbyist Griles had worked for the association. In June 2007, he was sentenced to ten months in jail on a felony conviction for lying to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

Bill Clinton’s resourceful interior secretary, Bruce Babbitt, had found a provision in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act that outlaws ‘unnecessary and undue degradation of public lands’ and used it to deny hardrock mining on environmentally sensitive areas. The Bush team promptly scuttled this reform.

Babbitt had also implemented ‘bonding’ improvements whereby, as with other forms of mining, hardrock operations would contribute to a fund to cover cleanup and reclamation costs in the event that they went bankrupt. Bush’s Interior Department promptly did away with this reform, too.

On top of this the Bush administration has:

*Opened vast tracks of de facto wilderness to hardrock mining by allowing companies and states to build roads on public land.

*Reinterpreted the 1872 Mining Law to allow unlimited use of public land for disposal of toxic mine waste.

*Removed mining regulations that controlled erosion, required revegetation, and protected ground and surface water.

*Tried (unsuccessfully thanks to a court order) to disavow the government’s authority to deny a mine permit for any reason.

No matter who’s in the White House, legislation offers the only hope for real and lasting reform of the 1872 Mining Act. In November 2007 the House approved a bill (vehemently opposed by Interior) that regulates hardrock-mining companies like other extractive industries and requires them to pay royalties.

But in the Senate there’s a push to excuse existing mines from royalties. Standing in the way of meaningful reform are Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) whose home state produces 90 percent of the nation’s gold, and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) whose constituents, heavily invested in uranium mining, profit from world demand for nuclear power.

Never has the need to bring the 1872 Mining Act out of the 19th century been greater. Roughly a quarter of our nation is still open to hardrock-mining; and this public land is threatened by soaring mineral prices. There has been an 80-percent increase in hardrock-mining claims over the past five years in the West, including 800 within five miles of Grand Canyon National Park.

The 1872 Mining Law has no analogue in American history. It is an historical artifact at once fascinating and destructive – as if giant ground sloths were found foraging in New England apple orchards.

As Mark Twain also wrote, and as he might have admonished those who use this vestigial statute to blight his America and ours: ‘Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.’

Ted Williams is conservation editor for Fly Rod & Reel magazine.

© 2008 Blue Ridge Press

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