On lodestones and millstones

 

Mining made the West, sparking the gold and silver rushes that populated the mountains and shaping the way water is shared, public lands are managed and mineral wealth flows into corporate coffers. It created boomtowns, coal towns and ghost towns. Mining has driven the economy and despoiled the environment ever since the earliest days of the Manifest West. But as our writers show in this issue, the region is now grappling with mining, its legacy and its future, in some new and rather surprising ways.

Tim Heffernan’s cover story reports on mineral hullabalooery that is still alive and well. The latest boosters tout rare-earth elements — those strange, once-overlooked minerals now critical to our digital, high-tech lives — as a way forward for mining. Rare earths, they say, will bring us security, and we need to unlock more Western lands to get at them. Alas, as with 19th century promises that rain will follow the plow, rare earths will not get mined just because someone thinks they ought to. We live in a global economy, where complex market forces, knuckleball politics from China and myriad other factors are at work. Rare-earth miners have to be price-takers, and no amount of technology or policy or politics will change that. That means there is no stranglehold on rare-earth minerals or the larger family of “energy-critical elements.” It also means that the West is unlikely to be at the forefront of a rare-earth boom, at least not for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, as writer Sarah Jane Keller notes, Butte, Montana, is seeking a new way forward, abandoning the copper economics of its rowdy past. A crash in the 1980s led to an attempt at “mining tourism” in the ’90s, but that is giving way to some savvier marketing. Tech companies are moving in, as are developers, musicians and local distillers. There are challenges, to be sure, and parts of Butte remain hollowed out — but it is not a ghost town. It is a town where optimism is booming and ideas are the real lode. People are “taking risks,” as a city planner says. “There’s a lot of energy here.”

I find this encouraging. Though many Westerners still yearn for the next mining boom, and much of our wealth still comes from hydrocarbons, our future lies elsewhere. Coal and methane are taking a beating, and falling oil prices are driving rig counts down, at least for now. As of this writing, the only operating rare-earth mine in the United States — Molycorp’s Mountain Pass Mine in California — is in serious trouble. All of this underscores the problem with extraction economies. They are based on removal, on diminishment. For Western communities, figuring out ways to add value to their past, while investing in a different future, seems like a very smart play.

High Country News Classifieds
  • ASSOCIATE PROGRAM MANAGER
    Associate Program Manager ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our State Parks thrive. From redwood groves and desert springs...
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • FREE RANGE BISON AVAILABLE
    Hard grass raised bison available in east Montana. You harvest or possible deliver quartered carcass to your butcher or cut/wrapped pickup. Contact Crazy Woman Bison...
  • CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST (NORTH CENTRAL WA)
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, and the chance to work with many different kinds of people and accomplish big conservation outcomes? Do you...
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...