Tuesday, June 1, 2010

1872 Mining Law

The 1872 Mining Law governs hardrock mining on publicly owned lands in the United States.  It was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant and has remained virtually unchanged for 138 years. The antiquated law and equally archaic government policies result in mining, by default, becoming the highest and best use of public lands, which are open to operation of the Mining Law—even on priceless National Wild and Scenic Rivers, like the Chetco.

The Mining Law essentially holds that all "valuable" hardrock minerals (e.g. gold, silver, copper, nickel and uranium) can be taken from most National Forest or Bureau of Land Management lands, without compensation to the public, and that the land can be purchased for the 1872 price of $5.00 an acre or less.

The federal government's position is - they can't say no to hardrock mining—even if it pollutes, endangers communities or impacts all other users of our National Forests and BLM lands.  So according to the land managing agencies mining essentially trumps all other uses of public lands as long as the area is open to operation of the Mining Law.  This is why we're pleading with the Obama Administration to immediately withdraw all of the National Wild and Scenic Chetco River outside the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, which was withdrawn in 1984.

The incredible sway the Mining Law has in the West is hard to comprehend unless you're a community, tribe, or individual citizen fighting to protect your rivers or backyards from mining.  The citizens of Crested Butte, Colorado have lived with the threat a molybdenum mine for decades.  Watch this National Geographic video about the Mining Law and Crested Butte's 30 year struggle.

The Karuk Tribe in Northern California's Klamath Basin have been trying to protect their home rivers and salmon runs from instream suction dredge mining for almost as long.  Watch their video.

The federal government's position is that state and federal regulations provide adequate protection from the impacts of mining.  Tell this to the people of Libby, Montana where 192 miners and members of their families have died and 375 have a fatal diseases as a result of a now closed vermiculite mine.  Doctors predict people in Libby will continue to die for decades.  Read about this community's tragic plight in an award winning investigative series by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

The mining industry, the federal government, Congress and the general public all bear blame, though not equally. Despite the toxic legacy of destruction and injustice, Congress has yet to provide meaningful reform of the archaic mining law. Under the Bush Administration, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service weakened any gain in regulatory effectiveness achieved under the Clinton Administration. To date, the Obama Administration appears to be doing little to rollback the Bush legacy.

The one caveat to the Mining Law's stranglehold—that the rights it grant are derivative of a discovery of a valuable mineral deposit—goes ignored by land managing agencies unless an area is formally withdrawn from operation of the Mining Law, also known as “mineral withdrawal” or “withdrawal from the Mining Law.” Recently, the Department of Interior, proposed withdrawing almost one million acres of land around the Grand Canyon.