« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

Can Congress drag the 1872 Mining Law into the 21st century?


Today’s hardrock mines are nothing like the pick-and-shovel operations of the mid-19th century, but they are still governed by 19th century laws. Under the General Mining Act of 1872, anyone who stakes a claim on public land for metals such as gold, silver and uranium can extract the ore royalty-free and, until a moratorium 13 years ago, could buy the land for $5 an acre or less. Since 1867, the government has sold more than 3.4 million acres of federal land to mining interests at bargain-basement prices. By some estimates, miners have extracted at least $245 billion in metals without returning anything to taxpayers.

On May 10, Congressman Nick Rahall, D-W. Va., introduced a bill to reform the General Mining Act, which he called “the Jurassic Park of all federal laws.” It would, among other things, charge an 8 percent royalty on the value of extracted metal, close some categories of land, such as wilderness and roadless areas, to mining, protect the environment from “undue degradation,” and create a cleanup fund. Rahall has introduced reforms every year since 1985; in 1993 the House and Senate each passed reforms, but couldn’t reconcile their differences (see our earlier story "You can't say no to mining"). Rahall and his allies think this year will be different.

The time is ripe now, says Jane Danowitz, director of the Pew Campaign for Responsible Mining, because of the shifting political landscapes of both Washington, D.C., and the West. “The role of public lands has changed,” she says. “Protection of public land is making sustainable economies possible.” Groups ranging from sportsmen to the Tiffany Company are supporting Rahall’s effort. Plus, she says, this Congress is “cash-strapped,” and the lure of $100 million in annual royalties could provide the incentive needed to boost the bill to passage.

The mining industry recognizes the need for reform, but has reservations about Rahall’s bill. “There are some areas of agreement” with it, says Luke Popovich, vice president of the National Mining Association. “We may get legislation this year.” There are disagreements, though, chief among which is the proposed royalty. Popovich says the industry doesn’t oppose extraction payments, but wants them to be based on net income, not the gross value of the metal. And companies are concerned about the proposed environmental regulations, which Popovich says would overlap existing laws.

The bill has good chances in the House, especially with Rahall chairing the committee responsible for it, but its fate in the Senate is less certain. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is known as a staunch defender of the mining industry, and has blocked reform efforts in the past. Danowitz is hopeful, pointing to Reid’s otherwise strong environmental record and his responsibilities as a member of Senate leadership, which charge him with the welfare of the entire nation, not just Nevada. Many in the mining industry, however, expect him to protect their interests. And no one is willing to speculate yet on what President Bush might do, should the bill make it to his desk. As Danowitz says of the White House, “They’re preoccupied with a few other things.”