The Environment: Notes On The Continuing Battle


The Mining Act of 1866 declared “the mineral lands of the public domain … free and open to exploration and occupation,” and to this day it is perfectly legal for any citizen to seek his fortune on the public lands. Not only are “vacant” unappropriated lands at the miners’ disposal but also areas set aside for other uses, such as national forests and wildlife ranges and refuges that were carved out of lands originally part of the public domain. Even some national monuments and one national park can be mined. Congress has made mining legal in Mount McKinley National Park and Glacier Bay National Monument in Alaska, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona, and Death Valley National Monument in California. Such is the power of the mining lobby that although the Wilderness Act of 1964 created a unique system of wilderness preserves to be protected from all development (no roads, no structures), it also permitted those preserves to remain open to mineral exploitation until 1984.

Under the antiquated general mining laws the miner need only establish sufficient “mineralization” to stake a claim on public land; he is not required to notify the federal government of its location, nor need he obtain a permit to operate. Nothing in these laws controls his operations or requires any restoration or treatment of “disturbed” land. Federal laws, in fact, not only permit mining on the public lands, but they also foster mineral development by providing loans amounting to 50 per cent of exploration costs; the loans are repayable only if the mine is a success. The miner can, by a relatively simple process, obtain a patent to his claim that gives him ownership of the property. Patent owners then have every right to build resort hotels, subdivide the land, or cut down the timber.

The Federal Leasing Act of 1920 stipulates that certain minerals, such as oil, coal, and phosphate, cannot be mined without a lease from the Secretary of the Interior. But aside from that, the balance is as much in favor of mineral development on public lands today as it was in 1908, when Theodore Roosevelt hurriedly declared the Grand Canyon a “national monument” (and closed to mining) in order to keep the magnificent canyon out of the hands of a speculator. Grand Canyon was then still part of the public domain, and the speculator, seeing its tourist potential, had sought to control access by staking out mining claims along the rim.

Striking evidence of the need today for mining-law reform lies at the base of Castle Peak in Idaho’s White Cloud Mountains in Challis National Forest. The White Clouds form a small wilderness area of seventy square miles dominated by snow-dusted Castle Peak, which rises to 11,820 feet above alpine lakes and meadows. The lakes are rich in rainbow and cutthroat trout; the meadows and mountain slopes are a sanctuary for elk, mountain goats, and bighorn sheep. Castle Peak waters drain into the East Fork of the Salmon River, prime spawning grounds for the beleaguered chinook salmon. It is a roadless area, and the U.S. Forest Service planned to keep it that way.

Yet wildcat prospectors are bulldozing in search of minerals, and in the summer of 1968 the American Smelting and Refining Company ( ASARCO ) staked out molybdenum claims at the base of Castle Peak. (Molybdenum is an alloy used primarily to harden steel and is in abundant supply in this nation.) Plans were made for an open-pit mine, expected to produce twenty thousand tons of ore a day from a pit covering nearly five million square feet. Initial samples from test drillings showed a molybdenum concentration of two tenths of one per cent. In other words, 99.8 per cent of the excavated rock from the open-pit mine would be waste sludge. An estimated annual accumulation of seven million tons of waste would be piled in the meadows, and, according to the regional office of the U.S. Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife, this would pollute the waters of the salmon spawning grounds. ASARCO’S discovery attracted other miners to the White Clouds, and claims are now spotted everywhere. At this writing, conservationists are moving in two directions to preserve the area. The National Wildlife Federation is hoping to challenge the legality of the operations in court, while the Greater Sawtooth Preservation Council, a local group led by economics professor John Merriam of Idaho State University, is pushing for the protection of national-park status.

Although congressmen have proposed legislation calling for a system under which leases would be required from all mining interests seeking to operate in the public lands, reform of the laws cannot come in time to save the White Clouds. Only conservation efforts can do that.