Claims to Leases: House Bill Modernizes the 19th Century Mining Law

Today, Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) and others introduced the Hardrock Leasing and Reclamation Act of 2018. This bill gives Americans more choice in how land managers balance hardrock mining with other uses of public lands.  President Trump’s recent decision to open up the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments to new mining claims illustrates why we need this reform.  Anyone can stake a valid mining claim there tomorrow, and effectively foreclose any competing land use, like conservation.  

Ending Special Treatment for Mining

This special treatment hardrock mining enjoys stems from an 1872 law for pick and shovel prospectors during the era of Westward expansion.  The General Mining Law of 1872 allows anyone who stakes a claim on public lands and discovers hardrock minerals to buy our lands, and all our mineral wealth, for $5/acre.  Any different land use loses; mining always wins. The people have no discretion to choose recreation, conservation, fishing, hunting, renewable energy, or even fossil fuel development instead of mining.

On top of this, the hardrock mining industry pays no royalties to the American taxpayer and they receive generous tax breaks for depleting our natural resources.  Mr. Grijalva and Mr. Lowenthal’s reform ensures a fair taxpayer return and allows the public a choice whether our lands will belong just to the mining industry or remain with all of us.

Ending Claims, Beginning Leases

The bill does this by converting the 19th century claims system in to a newer leasing system, already used in oil, gas, and coal extraction.  Leasing allows more opportunities for community input and provides land management agencies some discretion to choose among competing land uses.

Ending Mining’s Pollution Legacy

Also, the Hardrock Leasing and Reclamation Act of 2018 helps solve modern problems created by mines, new and old.  A dedicated, “polluter pays” reclamation fund will provide a critically necessary revenue source to clean up the estimated 500,000 abandoned and inactive hardrock mines littering the West. EPA estimates pollution from these mines costs taxpayers $50 billion.

New mines will have newer standards.  For instance, mines will have financial assurances that will help relieve taxpayer liability for clean up. Our Interior and Agriculture Departments will not permit new mines that will cause water pollution forever. And perhaps most importantly, many of our most treasured places, like National Monuments, National Parks, and Wilderness Study Areas will be off limits to mining.

Mining reform has a growing list of Congressional allies. Senators Udall, Bennet, Heinrich, Merkley, and Wyden introduced their own reform bill in the Senate last year with most of the same common sense ideas.  Policymakers should bring mining in to the 21st century, provide a fair return for public minerals, and help relieve taxpayer liability for cleanup costs. This is the right direction to help protect our precious water resources and communities affected by mining.