August 17, 2007

Miners staking claims on public land surrounding national park

Use of centuries-old law helping prospectors gobble up territory.

Merced Sun-Star Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Miners are using a controversial 19th century law to claim more public land around national parks like Yosemite, Grand Canyon and Death Valley.

Amid escalating demand for uranium, gold, copper and other metals, a new report shows the number of active mining claims grew 80 percent since January 2003. The rapid increase brings California's active claims to 22,544, and swings a spotlight onto renewed efforts to change the 1872 law that governs Western mining.

"We've seen a modern-day land rush," Dusty Horwitt, public lands analyst with the Environmental Working Group, said Thursday. "The big cause of concern is that the mining law provides very poor protection for our treasured places."

Relatively few claims turn into active commercial mines. Even so, environmentalists grow particularly anxious when claims are staked near national parks. Within five miles of Yosemite, for instance, the new study shows there are now 83 active claims. Of these, 50 have been filed since 2003.

The recent Yosemite-area claims include several dozen filed by a firm identified as the Troy Mining Corp. on land south of Highway 140, in Mariposa County. The company could not be reached Thursday.

All of the claims are filed under a law signed by President Ulysses S. Grant. Critics call the law dangerously outdated, and issued the report Thursday to highlight the need for reform. Miners and their political allies caution against moving too fast.

"We're not opposed to reasonable changes in the mining law," said Russ Fields, president of the Reno-based Nevada Mining Association.

On Tuesday, Fields will testify at a House energy and minerals subcommittee hearing in Elko, Nev. The committee chairman, Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, promised a "productive debate on the need to bring a 135-year-old law into the 21st century."

Under the current law, companies can stake a claim and mine federal land without paying royalties. Costa backs a bill that would impose an 8 percent federal royalty.

Fields called the proposed 8 percent royalty on gross proceeds "extraordinarily high," and said it must take into account mining expenses. These expenses include new environmental requirements imposed in California and other states.

"California is a difficult place to get a gold mine going, even with the price of gold up," said Adam Harper, formerly head of the California Mining Association and now head of the Sacramento-based California Construction and Industrial Materials Association.

The current federal law also enables companies to "patent" — or buy — the land outright for as little as $5 an acre. A moratorium currently blocks these sales. Fields said miners would permanently give up the old patenting provision in exchange for guaranteed long-term access to their mining sites.

The new report, available at, identifies 376,493 active claims on federal land in 12 Western states. In January 2003, there were 207,540 active claims. The Environmental Working Group notes that 4,708 claims are within five miles of a national park.

"This is market-driven," Bureau of Land Management spokesperson Heather Feeney said. "The market price for uranium has increased, and the same is true for hard-rock minerals."

Gold that sold for $325 an ounce in 2002 now sells for nearly $700 an ounce. Uranium prices scraped along at about $10 a pound in 2003.

Now, nuclear power demand has driven uranium prices to above $125 a pound.

Consequently, uranium-related claims in Western states leaped to 32,000 last year, compared to 4,300 in 2004. The latest claims, most uranium-related, include 805 filed within five miles of Grand Canyon and 864 filed in the vicinity of Arches National Park in Utah.

"Mines are quite destructive, a leading source of toxic pollution," Horwitt warned.

Feeney stressed, though, that the federal agency guards against "unnecessary degradation" from mines, and she added that officials "take a hard and serious look" at potential environmental consequences.

Neither the Bush administration nor Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., support the mining law reforms being pushed by environmental groups. Reid's resistance, in particular, significantly diminishes the prospects for the 1872 law being changed this Congress.