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.

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