12/23/2009 - This holiday season, it's not surprising that one of Hollywood's biggest box office hits is the revival of Charles Dickens classic tale, "A Christmas Carol." This Victorian-era story of good versus greed still clearly strikes a chord with audiences watching Wall Street pay out million-dollar bonuses while Main Street struggles to make ends meet. The dynamic can be found in our nation's capital as well, with some policy-makers often too eager to play Santa to special interests, at the cost of protecting our public lands from such travesties as the 1872 Mining Law.
America has a proud and unique tradition of preserving the country's finest places for everyone to enjoy. It began soon after the Civil War when Yellowstone became our first national park, spawning a system that now includes roughly 400 protected natural treasures and gems. This egalitarian notion that our public lands belong to all was solidified by President Theodore Roosevelt, who created hundreds of national parks, forests, monuments and game reserves to protect them from the voracious development of the industrial age.
For more than a century, Roosevelt's idea that natural resource conservation is a movement "essentially democratic in spirit, purpose and method" has prevailed. Consider the Wilderness Act, which since 1964 has preserved 110 million acres of the country's wildest landscapes so they can be enjoyed for hunting, angling and other recreational pursuits. Or the Land and Water Conservation Fund, another landmark measure that uses off-shore oil and gas revenues to acquire places like the Florida Everglades and Rocky Mountain National Park. And with most of the national forest open to logging, mining and drilling, the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule was issued to protect roughly the last one-third of the most pristine lands from most commercial road construction and development.
But the 1872 Mining Law utterly fails to protect the public interest. On the books fundamentally unchanged since it was signed by Ulysses S. Grant to encourage development of the West, today it allows a handful of global corporations to take a billion dollars worth of gold and other precious metals off public lands virtually for free. Adding insult to injury, there's little required in the way of clean-up of past mining messes, and the government estimates that more than $50 billion will be needed for remediation. In fact, this outdated measure gives metal mining priority on most public lands in the West, even land just outside of iconic national parks such as the Grand Canyon.
But with the government facing record deficits and gold selling for more than $1,000 an ounce, change may finally be afoot. Congress now is considering legislation that would curb the worst of the abuses and require the metal mining industry to begin playing by the same rules under which oil, gas and coal have been operating for decades. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., who heads the Committee on Natural Resources, has again introduced the reform bill passed with broad support by the House last Congress. His counterpart, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., also has authored a reform package that enjoys the support of key western colleagues.
The Obama administration also recently weighed in, telling Congress that overhauling the law would be one of its top environmental priorities. But it has yet to flex the kind of muscle on the issue that will be needed to persuade Senate leadership to place it on the Senate calendar.
Americans can thank forward-looking leaders like Theodore Roosevelt for ensuring our parks, forests and other public lands are largely governed by the same democratic principles on which the country was founded. As lawmakers in Washington make their holiday wish lists, wrapping up reform of the 1872 mining law ought to be at the top.
Jane Danowitz directs the Pew Environment Group's U.S. Public Lands Program.