Like many Westerners, I grew up with the luxury of unlimited adventure outdoors. I could wander around, fishing rod in hand, looking for the next hidden pond near my family’s cabin in northern Colorado.
That was before I began working in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado as a mountain guide for a kids’ camp. I’ll never forget the first time I ran across a copper-colored creek in the Animas River watershed. I stopped and stared because it was strangely beautiful at first. I failed to grasp that the water had turned that brilliant color because acid waste was draining into it from a mine abandoned at the turn of the century. Certainly, no trout could survive in those waters, and I could only guess how far down the mountain the stream carried its poison.
But I’ve never been opposed to mining, and I understand how the Gold Rush of the late 1800s helped define the state I was born in. Mining for metals brought people, towns and railroads, leading President Ulysses Grant to declare Colorado a state in 1876.
But while Colorado is undeniably still tied to mining, times have changed, and the General Mining Law of 1872 that gives mining priority over all other land uses is way past due for revision. Fully recognizing that this outdated law is to blame for much of the damage to our public lands, many of America's sportsmen have set their sights on reforming the 1872 law.
The issue is no less critical for hunters than it is for anglers. More than 80 percent of the most critical habitat for elk, for example, is found on lands managed by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Pronghorn, sage grouse, mule deer, salmon, steelhead, and countless other fish and wildlife species are similarly dependent on public lands. Our public lands in the West also contain well over 50 percent of the nation’s blue-ribbon trout streams and are strongholds for imperiled trout and salmon.
Though congressional reform never seems to go the distance, last November marked a milestone: The Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2007 passed the House of Representatives 244-166, and was a huge victory for hunters and anglers. The bill was strongly supported by a coalition called Sportsmen United for Sensible Mining, made up of organizations and individual grassroots partners and spearheaded by the National Wildlife Federation, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, and Trout Unlimited.
Now, it’s the Senate’s turn, and as the issue gains momentum, sportsmen in the West want to make sure the bill retains four principles that will make all the difference in the world to fish and other wildlife:
*Allow reclamation incentives and common-sense liability relief to those “good Samaritans” who buy or own land damaged by mining. Companies and nonprofit organizations that didn’t create the problems created by abandoned mines or their waste need to be encouraged to return the land to other uses while being protected against unreasonable liabilities.
*Prohibit the patenting or sale of public lands under this law. Since 1872, public lands have been practically given away to mining companies for as little as $2.50 to $5 per acre. Our wildlife needs public land to survive, and reform should prohibit the sale of that land.
*Create a royalty from any minerals taken from public lands to fund fish and wildlife conservation programs and reclamation of mined land. Sportsmen for over a century have been paying to play on public land; it’s time mining companies paid their share.
*Strengthen protections for fish, wildlife and water resources from the impacts of mining. This can be done by entrusting federal land managers with the authority to ensure reclamation of mining sites and to approve or deny mining permits based on environmental impacts.
Will these changes help fish and wildlife habitat in the years to come? Absolutely. That’s why so many people who love the outdoors and wildlife want this ancient mining law finally brought into the 21st century.
Lew Carpenter is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Boulder, Colorado, where he is outreach coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation.