1872 Mining Law: 

Drowning in the Nineteenth Century

By Nathan Newcomer
Associate Director

mining lawIt’s hard to imagine what the American landscape would look like today without Stewart Udall, the legendary interior secretary who recently passed away after a lifetime of championing conservation. Well before the modern environmental movement came of age, Udall was responsible for scores of new national parks and wildlife refuges, as well as laws that remain fundamental to public land protection today. Upon his departure from the Cabinet in 1969, Mr. Udall wrote, “After eight years in this office, I have come to the conclusion that the most important piece of unfinished business on the nation’s resource agenda is the complete replacement of the Mining Law of 1872.”

1872 was a time when the country was expanding west. Cattlemen, prospectors, and those seeking to start a new life set out across the vast prairies of the heartland and began settling in the Rocky Mountains. It was a year when President Ulysses S. Grant enacted the General Mining Act of 1872, which encouraged citizens to stake claim to the land and flourish.

May 10 marked the 137-year anniversary of this archaic mining law and the lack of any sensible policy provisions that will ensure the preservation of New Mexico’s wildlands, wildlife, and water quality. Of all the states in the West, New Mexico is one of the most heavily impacted by the 1872 law.

The United States of America is the only country in the  world that does not tax the mining industry a royalty fee for developing our public lands. Taxpayers face a $50 billion cleanup bill from this industry, which releases more toxic pollution than any other. Today global industries reap benefits while paying virtually nothing for what the Congressional Budget Office estimates is $1 billion worth of precious metals taken each year from public lands in the West.

Put plainly—the interests of mining trump those of water, wildlife, and wilderness, and the taxpayer is stuck with footing the bill for cleaning up any messes left behind after the industry has pulled up stake and left town.

It would seem like common sense to reform this Civil War-era law so that it reflects the common concerns of those who live in the American West today. But efforts to drag this nineteenth-century way of thinking into the twenty-first century have often collapsed under the pressure of the mining industry.

Over the past five years, mining claims for uranium, gold, and other  metals on public lands have increased almost 50 percent. Many of these new claims— staked largely by foreign-owned companies—lie near national treasures such as the Grand Canyon, as well as highly populated urban areas and sacred lands like New Mexico’s Mount Taylor.

During the last Congress, updating the measure seemed close at hand when the House passed a bipartisan reform package. Hopes were dimmed, however, when a handful of powerful mining companies derailed it in the Senate. This time around, the heads of both natural resources committees, Senator Jeff  Bingaman (D-NM) and Representative Nick Rahall (D-WV), are trying once more to modernize the law, each with his own proposal to require the industry to pay royalties and address abandoned mine cleanup.

Not surprisingly, the Bingaman bill enjoys the backing of Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) and Senator Mark Udall (D-CO)—Stewart’s son and nephew, respectively. Yet this may not be enough.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid, who represents Nevada—home to one of the largest producers of gold in the world—recently said that, while he favors reform, there is not enough time on this year’s congressional calendar for its consideration. The Obama administration, which declared last summer that updating the mining law is one of its top conservation priorities, also appears reluctant to tackle the issue right now.

Almost a quarter of our nation, or some 270 million acres, is open to hard rock mining claims. Public land is in jeopardy as never before, due to soaring mineral prices. In the past six years, gold prices
have doubled, and the global demand for nuclear fuel has spiked the price of uranium ore by a factor of ten.

New Mexico alone has over 21,500 active mining claims, in addition to an estimated  15,000 abandoned mines. Most of these abandoned mines have not been inventoried to document potential threats to water quality caused by toxic leakage, in spite of the fact that 40 percent of  Western watersheds have been contaminated by mining activities.

It is time for New Mexico’s congressional delegation to lead the country on dragging this archaic, Civil War-era law into the twenty-first century, and to bring about real changes that secure our future quality of life. The American West can ill afford another year of the mining industry continuing to take priority over our wildlands, wildlife, and water. Stewart Udall had it right back in 1969, when he said that we need “complete replacement” of the General Mining Act of 1872, and his words still ring just as true today.

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