With record snows and a robust economy, this has been a season of good fortune for the resort town of Crested Butte in western Colorado. Yet our future hangs in the balance as Congress wrestles with an issue that ought to concern Americans everywhere: reform of the 1872 Mining Law.
How Congress proceeds could determine the fate of our community and whether many of the things that make Crested Butte such an attractive place to live and play -- our healthy mountain environment and recreation-based economy -- will be spoiled by the large-scale, molybdenum mine proposed right in our municipal watershed.
Just like many other towns in the West, we treasure our rich mining heritage. But honoring the past doesn’t mean we must live with its destructive relics, and the mining rules set 136 years ago during the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant are indeed relics.
The mining law made mineral exploration and development the “highest and best use” of our federal lands in 1872. Virtually unchanged since that time, it still regulates hardrock mineral development and mining on our vast system of federal lands. This law may have made sense in the frontier days when Congress was eager to settle the West, but it no longer makes sense when Western communities survive in large part because of recreation, tourism and access to public lands.
We know that the federal land managers who oversee our forests and rangelands treasure the open space, clean water, recreation opportunities and wildlife habitat that public lands nourish. But the 1872 Mining Law makes it all but impossible for them to deny mining proposals that could destroy those values. Worst of all, local residents have virtually no clout with the Forest Service about whether a project goes forward. Under current law, local and state officials are even more powerless.
Yet here in Crested Butte, we are faced with a proposed mine just two miles from town. As we understand it today, the “Lucky Jack Project” would deposit hundreds of thousands of tons of tailings and other wastes close to town, and harm the valuable recreation lands and wildlife habitats that are our economic lifeblood.
Legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives this past October, H.R. 2262, would go a long way toward correcting these injustices. For the first time in more than a century, it would give federal land managers the power to reject a mine where other values like recreation, sensitive wildlife areas and critical waters are found to be paramount. It would also free special federal lands, including roadless forests and wilderness study areas, from the 1872 Mining Law.
Of particular importance to local and state officials, it would allow us to petition the secretary of Interior to withdraw from mining special places like our municipal watershed. This is a good start, though I believe that municipal watersheds should, as a class and without exception, be declared unsuitable for mining.
The House legislation also contains provisions that recognize state and local regulation of hardrock mineral development, ensuring compliance through reclamation and environmental protection standards established under local, state and federal laws. In addition, the House bill would, for the first time, require mining companies to pay royalties for operating on federal lands.
Recently, the U.S. Senate began its review of the 1872 Mining Law. In the coming weeks, senators on the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources will be debating behind closed doors whether and how to overhaul the 1872 Mining Law. For Crested Butte and other recreation-based communities throughout the West, I believe it is essential to retain the environmental protections in the House bill. The mining industry will argue its needs come first: I say the West has moved on to a different reality.
I want to make it clear that I don’t oppose mining; it’s critical to our nation’s security. But it is time for our elected officials to do the right thing for communities that must live with mining on their doorstep. Current laws have failed to protect public lands from the effects of mining, as anyone can attest who has ever hiked in the mountains. Some streams run orange with acid mine drainage, and waste from abandoned mines still litters the landscape. It’s time to stop adding to that sad legacy.
Alan Bernholtz is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the mayor of Crested Butte, Colorado.