As gear-intensive recreationists, we all use metal, from carabineers and bike frames to trekking poles and ski edges. Since the West was settled, mining has been a major activity on American public lands.
Mining laws were adopted in 1872 to help settle the West, back when the primary “technologies” for prospecting were a pick and a shovel. Surprisingly, these laws still apply to mining today. The 1872 Mining Law ensures that mining companies pay no royalties on the riches they extract; they can patent (i.e. privatize) our land for $5.00 an acre; and they pay little to nothing towards cleaning up mining sites. According to the EPA, the metal mining industry is the largest source of toxic pollution in the country.
Recently, a high-profile accident in the clean up of the Gold King mine near Silverton, Colorado, highlighted the impact that unregulated mining has had, and will continue to have, on watersheds across the West.
Our current mining policies are 150 years old and manifestly outdated, putting conservation and recreational values–and the economic future of the West–in danger. All communities deserve a say in where and how mining that will affect our lives is conducted. But under the 1872 Mining Law, mining proposals on public lands trumps all other uses and values, giving the mining industry preferential treatment.
Even when there is broad public support for protecting these landscapes, these archaic policies threaten to contaminate, lock up, and close us out of our public lands. Until our mining laws are reformed, the primary way to ensure that the conservation and recreational values of our public lands are protected from mining is to “withdraw” them from consideration for new mining claims. This can happen one of two ways: the Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management can put a temporary administrative withdrawal into place (between 5 to 20 years), or Congress can permanently withdraw the lands through legislation.
Right now, advocates are working to use these tools to protect several important landscapes that are threatened by mining proposals that are advancing under the 1872 Mining Law.
Southwest Oregon – Kalmiopsis
Two mining companies are seeking to develop three industrial-scale nickel strip mines on public lands in southwest Oregon’s Kalmiopsis region, threatening whitewater rivers in SW Oregon and NW California. These mines are proposed for the headwaters of the Wild and Scenic Illinois River (on tributary Rough and Ready Creek) and the Wild and Scenic North Fork Smith (on tributary Baldface Creek). These rivers and the rivers they flow into have been known as whitewater classics for decades, and for their rugged landscapes, exceptionally pure water quality, and world-class salmon runs. These rivers form the backbone of the local recreation economy and provide clean drinking water for downstream communities. Nearby Hunter Creek and Pistol River, which are also world-renowned for their fisheries, are also threatened. There is overwhelming local, regional, and national support for protecting these rivers.
Despite overwhelming public opposition to these mines, the archaic 1872 Mining Law prioritizes mining over all other land uses. Local communities, businesses, tribes, and river and recreation advocates have been working hard to support withdrawing these lands from new mining claims through both the administrative and the legislative process. The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are currently considering a temporary withdrawal in order to give Congress the time to act. And this week the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a hearing on the Southwestern Oregon Watershed and Salmon Protection Act (S. 346). The bill was introduced by Oregon Senators Wyden and Merkley and would withdraw approximately 101,000 acres of public land from future mines, protecting these rivers and the communities that depend on them. At the hearing, BLM Director Neil Kornze testified in support of the bill, noting the “necessity” of protecting these lands and emphasizing that “mining has been identified as a primary threat to…[threatened] botanical species and could pose harm to threatened salmon species” in the area.
While we’re making good progress to protect the pure and wild rivers of the Kalmiopsis region, there’s still a lot of work to do and we’ll need your help!
Tune into our friends at American Whitewater to learn more!
North Cascades, Washington – Methow Valley
Recently, a Canadian company filed for permits to conduct exploratory drilling for copper on Flagg Mountain, which sits on Forest Service land in the Methow Valley in Washington’s North Cascades. The Methow Valley is an adventurer’s dream, home to the nation’s largest cross-country ski area, a heralded section of the Pacific Crest Trail, and a vast expanse of wild forests with some of the best hiking, backpacking, paddling, and fly-fishing around.
The proposed mining on Flagg Mountain would have far-reaching implications:
- This deposit would likely require an open-pit approach. The infrastructure required would impact a minimum of 3,000 acres—six square miles—of land in the narrow valley to accommodate the pit, waste rock, and other facilities.
- Full-scale mining will cause years of disruption to the area through increased heavy truck traffic and industrial activity, visual impacts, and disruption of wildlife and their habitat.
- Despite ongoing advances in techniques and required cleanup plans, accidents and spills that affect water quality are known to happen with devastating results, and ensuring required mitigation performance often falls short of commitments.
In response, the Methow Headwaters Campaign proposes to secure a mineral withdrawal from the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. This action would prohibit mining on the Methow watershed’s public lands—approximately 340,000 acres in total. The Methow Headwaters, the campaign working to secure this withdrawal and fend off this mining proposal, has overwhelming support locally and regionally, from local outfitters and conservation groups to small businesses and local agriculture groups.
U.SSenators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) recently introduced legislation that would safeguard 340,000 acres of existing federal lands in the region. Said Murray of The Methow Headwaters Protection Act of 2016, “I am proud to work with the community to protect this environmentally sensitive area of the Methow River Valley, ensure critical federal investments in salmon recovery are protected, and continue to support the Valley’s thriving outdoor recreation economy.” This legislation helps highlight the Valley and provides support for the campaign. On Thursday, the Forest Service committed to pursuing a withdrawal of mining in the region. Even though only Congress can permanently withdraw mining, the Forest Service's commitment to protecting it is a huge win. Read more about that here.
You can read Outdoor Alliance’s official comments on the Energy and Natural Resources Bill, including our feedback about mining reform, the Kalmiopsis, and the Methow by clicking here or on the letter at right.