Mining Reform: Deja vu again and again

by 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.

© High Country News