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The West 2000 Page 11

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Although large corporations control most production, the lure to individuals of finding a strike is as evident in mining as in other resource development. In the mining state of Nevada, for example, nearly 80 percent of all claimants hold between one and 20 claims, as opposed to the 36,000 claims held by nine large companies.

It can sound, as it so often has in American history, like a get rich quick idea, but mining in America today is certainly no less beset with obstacles to individual enterprise than other industries, and in some ways is the most threatened of them all. That is particularly true on public land, where the Mining Act of 1872 still offers the last remaining opportunity of converting federal property into private use.

Deep mounds of regulations and requirements piled up over years stand in the way of opening a new hole in the public earth today, but mining operators have found their way through most of them in the past 25 years to produce a record of regeneration and renewal of mining lands. Tens of millions more in dollars have been invested by the industry in voluntary restoration of abandoned mines.

Unlike other resources on federal lands, mining actually produces a positive return to the government of $6 for every dollar budgeted for management. (Nine state governments, however, reported returns of $35 per dollar spent on state-managed mineral lands.) Even so, newer environmental regulations, and even international accords, have been employed in the last decade to delay or halt new mining operations or explorations in the United States. One such administrative action recommended by the Department of the Interior would halt lead mining in southeast Missouri, effectively terminating 85 percent of lead production in the U.S.


Other Department of Interior actions, however, have concentrated on imposing restrictions to mining claims in the West and demanding higher royalties from existing mines. Both actions would override aspects of the 1872 Mining Law with executive authority not subject to congressional approval. This is in contrast to actions taken by other nations, including emerging Third World countries, to eliminate barriers to exploration and production of their mineral resources.

When the Grand Staircase Escalante region of Utah was declared a National Heritage Site in 1996 by President Clinton, access was prohibited to an estimated $2 billion in exceptionally high grade coal. The need for such coal required U.S. industry to begin importing it from Indonesia.

In just the last year, the federal government issued 52 notices of land withdrawal covering 2.3 million acres of the West that were closed to mining exploration.

Even with the strictest environmental regulations and controls in the world, the United States is estimated to contain a large percent of the world’s resources for mineral products, metallic minerals and fuel reserves. Coal reserves alone are estimated to contain 400 years of fuel energy.

The United States is still the world’s second largest producer of gold, next only to South Africa. Both gold and silver production in the U.S. reached record levels in 1997. Yet by all accounts, mining has touched less than one-quarter percent of all U.S. land.

By figures of the government itself, each American relies on 46,000 pounds of new mined materials, including 7,500 pounds of coal energy, each year.

As a nature-loving club, long before it became a pressure group, John Muir’s Sierra Club believed that the more Americans who could participate in the enjoyment of nature, the better the chances for preserving it from other uses. A Stanley Steamer made it into Yosemite Valley in 1900, the first of what has since become an overwhelming flood of motorized visitors to the park. In recent years, others have sought more solitary experiences with nature on roads and trails suitable to off-road vehicles (ORVs) and motorized bikes. They too have a club in the half-a-million-member Blue Ribbon Coalition, but theirs is so far a losing battle to federal actions that have literally dug tank-trap trenches through previously traveled forest roads, cutting off all wheeled access.


John Muir would surely be appalled at how “loved” is his Yosemite Valley today. He might be alarmed as well by the disturbance of motorized vehicles finding their way deeper and deeper into the forests. But it’s an open question about whether even Muir would favor “locking up” more than 40 million acres of public land in the West from use by any except those who come on foot, and then, only by permission.


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