Opinion

Earth Day's Unfinished Business

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On this 40th anniversary of Earth Day (Thursday), it's hard to imagine what the American landscape would look like today without Stewart Udall, the legendary interior secretary who recently passed away after a lifetime of championing conservation. Well before the modern environmental movement came of age, Udall was responsible for scores of new national parks and wildlife refuges, as well as laws that remain fundamental to public land protection today. However, by his own acknowledgment, he left behind some unfinished business — reforming the 1872 Mining Law.

Lawmakers in Washington can pay tribute to his legacy by making a firm commitment to get the job done. For national seashores, the Appalachian Trail, some of our finest national parks and many more places, we can thank Udall's efforts. He oversaw one of the greatest expansions of the country's national park and wildlife refuge systems since Theodore Roosevelt. He also brought over the finish line such landmark measures as the Land and Water Conservation Fund, Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the law establishing the National Wilderness Preservation System.

But Udall came up short in accomplishing one of his key objectives. Upon his departure from the Cabinet in 1969, he wrote, "After eight years in this office, I have come to the conclusion that the most important piece of unfinished business on the nation's resource agenda is the complete replacement of the Mining Law of 1872."

Sadly, more than four decades later, this 19th-century relic stubbornly remains on the books, at a high cost to America's environment and its taxpayers. It's difficult to fathom that in this era of modern regulation, the industry that mines gold, uranium and other hardrock minerals still operates under a law basically unchanged since it was signed by President Ulysses S. Grant to encourage pioneers to develop the frontier. Today global industries reap benefits while paying virtually nothing for what the Congressional Budget Office estimates is $ 1 billion worth of precious metals taken each year from public lands in the West.

In sharp contrast, oil, gas and coal companies have been reimbursing taxpayers for decades, providing the U.S. treasury with billions of dollars in royalties paid for resources extracted from federal property.

The outdated law also puts few limits on where mining companies can operate, with claims-taking allowed within miles of icons like the Grand Canyon and other national parks. Clean-up requirements also are minimal, despite findings by the Environmental Protection Agency that the industry produces more toxic pollutants than any other. So we're managing to continue giving away land at 1872 prices while preserving a nineteenth century, Wild-West attitude toward environmental responsibility.

Still, the antiquated statute lives on, outwitting even its cleverest critics. During the last Congress, updating the measure seemed close at hand when the House passed a bipartisan reform package. Hopes were dimmed, however when a handful of powerful mining companies derailed it in the Senate. This time around, the heads of both natural resources committees, Sen. Jeff Bingaman and Rep. Nick Rahall, are trying once more to modernize the law, each with their own proposal to require the industry to pay royalties and address abandoned mine cleanup.

Not surprisingly, the Bingaman bill enjoys the backing of Sens. Tom and Mark Udall - Stewart's son and nephew, respectively. Yet this may not be enough.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who represents Nevada - home to one of the largest producers of gold in the world - recently said that while he favors reform, there is not enough time on this year's congressional calendar for its consideration. The Obama administration, which declared last summer that updating the law is one of its top conservation priorities, also appears reluctant to tackle the issue right now.

Admittedly, lawmakers have a lot on their plate. Legislation to create jobs, reform the nation's financial system and address global warming all merit serious attention. But so does action to end the environmental and taxpayer waste generated by failure to give today's mining a modern framework. This Earth Day would be a good time for Washington to finally complete the job Stewart Udall set out do. Reform the 1872 Mining Law.