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The Environment: Notes On The Continuing Battle

April 2024
5min read


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.


The internal-combustion engine causes more than 60 per cent of all air pollution in our cities. Ride a bicycle to work instead of driving a car and you help make a cleaner, quieter, more pleasant city to live in. One champion of the bicycle as the urban commuter’s best friend is the twenty-five-year-old son of a Detroit automobile executive, Lieutenant (j.g.) Thomas R. Reid III. The U.S. Navy set the wheels of revolution in motion when they plucked Mr. Reid from his teaching post (Greek) at Johns Hopkins University and put him behind a desk in downtown Washington four miles from where he found a place to live. Reid quickly discovered that the fastest, cheapest, “most fun way” to get to work—rain or shine—was on his bike. In order to prove this to a skeptical world, he staged a race last fall from his home to the District Building, where he works. He pitted himself and his two-wheeler against a driver in a Porsche sports car and a commuter on a city bus. Mr. Reid won hands down: the driver arrived three minutes behind the cyclist and even then had to park illegally before dashing across the finish line; the bus rider trailed by fourteen minutes.

The ivory-tower theorist behind Reid’s fancy footwork is Dr. Wilcomb Washburn, head of the Division of American Studies at the Smithsonian Institution. Dr. Washburn has long proposed the establishment of commuter bicycle routes, and last summer his department produced a comprehensive plan for Washington. Reid’s unique race was part of an effort to convince the city that the plan deserved serious consideration. Since then Washington has seen these changes on behalf of the cyclist:

  • • The city council has implemented the first stage of the Smithsonian plan by establishing three well-marked bicycle routes into the Federal Triangle in downtown Washington, where 70 per cent of the government’s employees work.
  • • The General Services Administration is supplying bicycle racks for twentyfive government buildings.
  • • The Washington police promise to put up posters warning drivers to watch out for cyclists. The traffic commission will mark a bike lane on designated routes with a serrated red line to show cyclists where they can and should go.
  • • Fifteen miles of four-lane highway through Rock Creek Park in the heart of the city are now closed to Sunday automobile traffic, and a path for bike commuters will be built through the park.

Reid and his activist associates, lawyer Donald Green and Clay Grubic, an ex-C.I.A. man who now runs a bike shop, are urging the District to expand its use of the Smithsonian plan. They want the District to designate more routes for bike commuters and for tourists, to allow adult cyclists on sidewalks in such highly dangerous areas as bridges, and to build more special bike paths along particularly busy roads.


South Street, as old as Philadelphia itself, is the southernmost rung of William Penn’s ladder of streets spanning the land between the Delaware and the Schuylkill rivers. It is the commercial heart of one of this country’s oldest black communities, made famous by Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois’ 1897 sociological study of the Philadelphia Negro for the University of Pennsylvania. The street is a ribbon of small shops and houses that ties together a whole neighborhood and keeps the community viable. It is a street of beautiful nineteenth-century storefronts, “unique, urbanistically eloquent in their relation to sidewalk and street,” in the words of city planner Denise Venturi.

South Street has been slated for demolition for fifteen years. The city plans eight lanes of concrete cross-town expressway along its length, a flowing moat of automobiles between the blacks of South Philadelphia and the middleclass whites of Society Hill and Rittenhouse Square. A community can’t hold its breath for fifteen years while a city sorts out its problems, and one third of South Street rots as it waits. But the community that remains has a loud and effective voice: a citizens’ committee led by Mrs, Alice Lipscomb, who has been joined by the civic-minded and the concerned of the white community—the Society Hill Civic Association, a lawyer named Robert Sugarman, the planning firm of Venturi and Rauch, and many more. Together they hope to convince Mayor James Tate, the Chamber of Commerce, and the last of several study groups to kill once and for all the crosstown expressway and let South Street renew itself.

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