Opinion

Mining Our Treasures

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Some 5 million Americans will visit the Grand Canyon this year, heeding the advice of Theodore Roosevelt to enjoy one of "the great sights, which every American, if he can travel at all, should see." But while the canyon may be timeless, its surroundings are not. There's a race afoot — within miles of the park's majestic rim — to snatch up mining rights on public lands for extracting uranium, gold and other hard-rock metals. What's worse, a 135-year-old federal law not only makes the practice legal but underwrites mining at taxpayers' expense.

A recent analysis of government records conducted by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group found a dramatic surge in claims to mine metals on public lands in the West, threatening national parks and other special places. The group found that the number of active claims in 12 Western states has increased 80 percent over the past five years. More than 50,000 claims have been grabbed up in the past nine months. The proliferation of claims in Colorado and Utah has been especially high, with a 200 percent increase since 2003.

Mining is a messy business. Anyone who visits or values our national parks has cause to worry about the mushrooming number of new claimholders, who hold the rights to explore, extract and ultimately even purchase public land regardless of its proximity to treasured landscapes.

For instance, the analysis found that 815 active mining claims lie within five miles of the Grand Canyon, 805 of them staked since 2003. Just outside Arches National Park in Utah, 869 claims have been snatched up, almost all within the past five years. In California, more than 2,000 active mining claims lie within five miles of Joshua Tree, Death Valley and the venerable Yosemite national parks. Almost a third of these have been staked since 2003.

Why the rush? Metal prices today are sky-high, and global demand is great. But the real culprit is the antiquated federal statute governing mining, virtually unchanged since it was signed by Ulysses S. Grant in 1872 to encourage settlement of the West. The law -- which has been on the books since before the light bulb -- often gives metal mining special priority over recreation, ranching and conservation.

Moreover, the law allows mining companies -- even those that are foreign-owned -- to take precious resources from public lands virtually for free; this is in contrast to the oil, gas and coal industries, which have been paying royalties since the 1920s. And in what is arguably one of the great boondoggles of all time, both individual and corporate claimholders can purchase public land for $5 an acre or less. They don't even have to mine the property but can use it -- and have -- to build hotels, condominiums and casinos.

Congress may finally be ready to say enough is enough. Rep. Nick J. Rahall (D-W.Va.), who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources, has initiated bipartisan legislation that would modernize the antiquated law. The bill would not end or ban mining in the West but would ensure that it's done within modern legal parameters.

The measure would set up long-overdue environmental standards for operations and cleanup, require metal mining companies to pay an 8 percent royalty (oil, gas and coal companies often pay more) and establish a fund to deal with the hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines that scar our landscape. Most important, it would end the priority status that mining has long been afforded on some of our most valued public lands, protecting parks, national forest roadless areas, and wild and scenic river corridors from degradation.

Not surprisingly, the proposal faces stiff opposition from the mining industry's allies in the administration and Congress, who have invoked the specters of compromised national security and damage to the economy. But some of our greatest national treasures and open spaces are on the line.

The threat of hundreds of mining claims for uranium, gold and other metals within a stone's throw of the Grand Canyon should serve as a wake-up call. It's time to reform the 1872 Mining Act and protect some of America's most important places.