Mining Reform: Deja vu again and again

  • Paul Larmer


This Editor's Note accompanies the HCN feature story: Hardrock Mining Showdown.

"Mining Reform May Hit Paydirt in 1993." That was the headline of a story I wrote for High Country News following the election of President Bill Clinton and his appointment of the reform-minded Bruce Babbitt as Interior secretary to oversee the West's federal lands.

But, alas, mining reform is like peace in the Middle East. The closer you think you are to it, the farther away it moves.

Just ask Roger Flynn of the Western Mining Action Project. For 20 years, Flynn has been on a mission to get the federal land agencies to treat mining companies like every other public-lands user -- requiring them to pay a reasonable fee for using public lands, to pay royalties on minerals extracted from those lands, and even, on occasion, to be turned down when their operations would destroy ecologically sensitive or especially scenic places.

"This system hasn't hurt the oil and gas industry," notes Flynn. But every attempt to bring hardrock mining into the modern world has failed, thanks to an 1872 law signed by President Ulysses S. Grant that enshrined mining as a right. An amazingly strong political lobby has fought against the slightest reform of that law, and 138 years later, it still holds sway.

Today, as Tony Davis reports in this issue, the fight is in the courts, where Flynn and his allies are trying to force the U.S. Forest Service to reject a controversial copper mine proposed near Tucson, Ariz. They make a strong argument that the agency has the legal latitude, through rules based on modern environmental laws, to protect the land from undue degradation.

No matter how the case turns out, there is no doubt that the Forest Service -- and its sister agency, the Bureau of Land Management -- would have an easier time saying no if the reform bill the House of Representatives passed in 1993 had become law. Back then conservationists had a friendly administration and a Democratic majority in both chambers of Congress. But they faced the opposition of a powerful Western senator -- Nevada Democrat Harry Reid -- who was able to delay the bill until the mid-term elections of 1994, when Republicans were swept back into power and promptly killed mining reform outright.

Today's political landscape looks eerily similar, with Republicans in control of the House, and Reid still in power and still backing a mining industry that has surged on the meteoric rise in gold and copper prices.

The main difference is that the Obama administration, including Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, expresses no interest in mining reform. In fact, it is defending the industry-backed rules of the Bush administration, which continue to give hardrock mining companies unfettered access to public lands without having to pay U.S. taxpayers a dime.

Says an exasperated Flynn, "I am ... making the same arguments and dealing with the same people in industry and government, as I was in the early 1990s." And there seems to be no end in sight.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Kevin Masden
Kevin Masden
Feb 24, 2011 11:28 AM
Hope you like euros and other foriegn currency. And I hope you really practice getting on that bicycle of yours to go whereever you want to travel. Oh and by the way you are not allowed to use currency for purchases nor are you allowed to use gas or oil products nor electricity or even live in a house supplied by any means of these industries. I don't know what frickin rock these activists crawled out from under but they seriously lack any common sense. When the American dollar fails because it is worthless due to the lack of natural resources being produced by this country and moritoriums are placed on what you can use and eat and where you are allowed to go and by what means maybe you wont think so ignorant and selfishly.
Dave Kangas
Dave Kangas Subscriber
Feb 28, 2011 07:14 AM
This is a tough issue, if mining companies are forced to pay royalties, etc, they will be priced out of the market by foreighn competition. However, the legacy of mining is a scarred, polluted landscape and numerous "superfund" sites requiring billions to clean up. It is obvious Kevin, that you haven't had the pleasure to live around a superfund site like in N idaho caused by silver mining. Nor have you had to fight to protect a major river system from a cynanide gold leaching operation. The bonds mining is required to put up is a pittance of the costs to clean up after they leave or close down the operation. Also, after bankruptcy is filed, the taxpayer is the one that gets to pay. In many cases, the risk to the environment, the health of the local human and wildlfie populations for generations into future just isn't worth the risk. THAT is a soely the fault of the industry itself.
Anna Jeffrey
Anna Jeffrey
Mar 02, 2011 08:51 AM
Kevin, I happen to love the rock I am living under... It's called Apache Leap Mountain and I am very VERY concerned about it's integrity. I think you need to wake up and realize how we are being screwed by the mining companies. You talk about our natural resources as if they are a free for all!... Think about who actually owns most ALL these mining companies. It's not US! I choose the Beauty and the Health of my backyard and I'll find a job where I can walk to work, since you put it that way.
Debra Mims
Debra Mims
May 01, 2011 10:46 AM
Hello People, Just like every other industry technolgy has chaged the way you can mine. It is absoultely possible to mine in an environmental friendly and safe process. This is not 1872 it is 2011. A Plan of Operations on a mine site would never allow things like cynanide leaching near any river or watershed. Learn the rules and regs before you create these monster stories. Mining could and can be a very viable industry for our county. Or should we just let China or India take over all industry?