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February 9th, the Missoulian (in Montana) ran an excellent opinion column calling for the modernizing of the 1872 Mining Law.

The law, largely unchanged since Custer’s Last Stand, allows for multinational mining companies to claim mineral-rich publicly owned land and extract the gold/copper/etc without payment of a royalty.  Needless to say, it contains no environmental protections — they weren’t thinking about such things in 1872.

A bill to update the mining law has passed the House, and Senator Bingaman from New Mexico has introduced similar legislation in the Senate — so we’re poised to bring mining regulation from the 19th century into the 21st.

The author of the op-ed is Jon Krutar a rancher, veteran and former economics professor. Endorsement of the Bingaman bill, and other highlights of his op-ed follow, which you should really read in its entirety.

Like the Blackfoot River, our family is Montanan through and through. My grandfather emigrated from Sweden and came west to mine, before an accident on the job took his life when my dad was 9. My father’s first job after the Depression was in an underground mine in Butte. Like me, almost any Montanan can trace back a generation or two to a miner.

But mining today is not what it was in my grandfather’s day, when it was mostly done on a small scale with anyone wielding a pan or a pick. Mining operations today are done on a massive scale, altering entire landscapes and leaving vast volumes of mine waste behind. Unfortunately, the laws that govern mining have not kept pace with the change in times or techniques. Montanans continue to pay a heavy price in terms of severe pollution to many of our rivers, streams and groundwater.

Even though times have changed, the laws that govern mining on federal lands have not. Under the General Mining Law of 1872, intended to encourage the settlement and expansion of the West, miners received the right to prospect wherever they liked. They could buy public land for less than $5 an acre, and mining was deemed the highest priority over any other land use. The law offers multinational conglomerates the same bargain today. And it fails to provide adequate protections for water and wildlife. Without reform, the only ones to benefit from more mining in Montana will be the stockholders of the large companies that operate here.

There is a solution. New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has introduced a bill in the Senate, S. 796, the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act, which will ensure that the industry is managed responsibly for the 21st century, not the 19th.