Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Reform of 1872 Mining Laws

Here's commentary published in the Seattle PI that I authored with Ken Meidell over at Cascade Designs regarding the current discussions in the Senate over reform of the mining laws of 1872.

Seattle PI
Balancing, protecting the playing field
Last updated March 31, 2008 4:04 p.m. PT

With two major mountain ranges, three stunning national parks and miles of coastline, it's no wonder the Washington Bureau of Tourism calls our outdoor opportunities "actively great." From rushing rivers to old-growth forests, there's arguably no better playground around. But that could change. An outdated law gives mining priority treatment on some of the same places we climb, ski, hike, paddle and mountain bike, regardless of environmental impact or other uses of public lands. We're thankful that Sen. Maria Cantwell and others are trying to pass legislation that will balance -- and protect -- the playing field.

Strange as it may seem, gold, uranium and other hardrock mining on Washington public lands remains governed by the 1872 Mining Law, which allows the taking of gold and other metals free of charge and, gives mining priority over everything else on most federal lands. Moreover, the lack of effective environmental protections has left a devastating legacy of abandoned mines that have not only marred landscapes but also contaminated 40 percent of Western headwaters.

This 19th century mining law is out of synch with a West whose population is booming due in large part to the quality of life public lands provide. Our Western economy is no longer dominated by resource extraction, but instead thrives from a diverse array of industries, including sustainable outdoor recreation. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, in Washington outdoor recreation contributes $12 billion to the economy annually, sustains 115,000 jobs and generates $650 million in state taxes.

Last fall, the House of Representatives took an important first step toward bringing our nation closer to the 21st century, by passing bipartisan legislation that would protect wild places and provide stronger environmental safeguards. As a member of the Natural Resources Committee and co-sponsor of the legislation, Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., helped ensure passage of a strong reform measure.

The Senate is ready to act, although opposition from mining interests could gut much needed conservation provisions from the House bill. Washington's senators can play a pivotal role in advancing much-needed reforms. Cantwell, as a member of the committee drafting reform legislation, has repeatedly called for a bill that includes stronger environmental protections.

We wholeheartedly agree. Genuine reform means putting roadless national forests, potential wilderness and areas around national parks off limits to new mining claims. Waterways and watersheds must be protected. And, the mining industry -- like everyone else -- needs to pay to use them by compensating taxpayers for valuable minerals taken from public lands, as required for coal, oil and gas companies.

Let's be clear. Makers and users of outdoor recreation equipment recognize the importance of mining. From climbing carabineers and bike frames to trekking poles and ski edges, navigating a downhill trail or scaling a peak depends on metal. Mining has a place in the future economy of the United States. It just shouldn't be modeled after 19th century practices. Mining needs to be conducted in a manner that is responsible to our environment, economy and communities.

Modernizing the nation's 135-year-old mining law is simply the right thing to do for Washington's diverse economy, natural ecosystems and superlative outdoor recreation. For those of us who love the outdoors, we heartily thank Inslee for his work in the House and strongly support Cantwell's efforts in the Senate.

Ken Meidell is vice president of the Outdoor Group for Seattle-based Cascade Designs. Thomas O'Keefe is Pacific Northwest stewardship director for American Whitewater, a founding organization of the Outdoor Alliance.