Aging mining law handcuffs the American West

Originally published in High Country News (June 12, 2012). Reprinted with permission.

By Ben Long

Two of my favorite western cities, Tucson, Ariz., and Boise, Idaho, share some common blessings and one common curse.

The blessings include lovely mountain backdrops, vibrant universities and increasingly diverse economies.

The shared curse: badly misguided mining claims upstream.

Photo courtesy Save the Scenic Santa Ritas.

Why, in the 21st Century, should communities like Boise and Tucson be shackled to an antiquated federal mining policy dating back to the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant?

I was a newspaper reporter in Boise for a short spell and when I return, I am drawn to the Boise River and its marvelous greenbelt. It’s a rare city where the trout fishing and kayaking are so good within city limits.

Folks in Boise are rightfully concerned about a Canadian company that has proposed a cyanide-leach gold mine upstream from the Boise River. Besides fishing and floating, the Boise provides about a fifth of drinking water for the largest metro area in Idaho. The battle cry there is: the Boise River is more precious than gold.

That scenario might sound familiar to folks in Tucson. There, the mining company Rosemont Copper recently unveiled plans for a giant, thirsty copper mine in the Santa Rita Mountains on the outskirts of town. Water is even scarcer and more precious in Tucson than it is in Boise.

When the Montana winters start to wear us down, my family heads to Tucson and surrounding Sky Island mountain ranges.  We love to bird at local hotspots like Madera Canyon.

Mining has been, and will continue to be, important elements in both the Gem State and the Copper State economies. But it’s long past time to recognize that just because there is gold in the hills, it’s not always worth ripping the hill apart to get it.

When Karen and I visit Madera Canyon, we hope for a glimpse of a rare bird like an Elegant Trogon or Flame-colored Tanager. We are not alone. The two counties near Tucson bring in nearly $3 billion/year from tourism and recreation. What’s more, the natural settings and outdoor opportunities near cities like Boise and Tucson help attract investment and jobs in small business, light industry and technologies.

But forget all that. The 1872 General Mining Law mandates that mining is always the highest priority for our public lands, from the Boise National Forest to the Coronado National Forest. Local rangers may modify, but are not allowed to reject a mining proposal, even when it runs squarely against local sensibilities or modern economic interests.

That evidently made sense in the 1870s, when Col. Custer and Sitting Bull clashed over prospectors’ intrusions into the Black Hills. But those days are done. It’s time to give local communities a voice in determining the future of public lands that offer so much value, far beyond minerals. Even if that means sometimes saying “no.”


Image: The natural setting around Tucson, Ariz., such as the Santa Rita Mountains, are more precious than gold. Photo courtesy Save the Scenic Santa Ritas.

Ben Long is an outdoorsman, author and conservationist from Kalispell, Mont.,  who has yet to add the Elegant Trogon to his life list. He is senior program director for Resource Media.

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