March 11, 2010

Harry Reid, the New Public Lands Enemy No. 1

Remember Tom Daschle, Democrat Senate Majority Leader of the recent past, voted out in of office in his home state of South Dakota? Perhaps voters should do it again, this time in Nevada, and defeat the second Democrat Senate Majority Leader in a row. If we do, we might have some chance of saving our public lands from the mining industry.

By Bill Schneider
New West

Senator Harry Reid

I used this headline once before when writing about Mark Rey, former Bush Administration Undersecretary of Agriculture and boss of the Forest Service. Prior to Rey’s Reign of Terror, California Republican Congressmen Richard Pombo held the honor of being the biggest enemy of public lands. Voters booted him in 2006, but he’s back, running for Congress again this year.

Now, we have a new Public Lands Enemy No. 1, none other than current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV).

As I write this, the second most powerful Democrat in the country is locked in a bitter battle to keep his power and his membership in America’s most exclusive club. It’s a long time to November 2, but early polls show Senator Reid losing to any of the four Republican challengers.

Normally, those of us who value our public lands would be rooting for the Dems, but in this case, we’d be better off with a freshman Republican who might regularly vote on the wrong side of environmental issues, but wouldn’t have the unbridled power to the Senate Majority Leader wields.

Although Senator Reid has taken some flack from his conservative constituency for voting to protect roadless lands and desert tortoise habitat, he is, to put it mildly, the darling of the state’s vast mining industry. And to say mining is big in Reid’s home state of Nevada would be quite the understatement. The Silver State is 87 percent federal land, and in one year, 2007, miners in Nevada extracted nearly 190 tons of gold--three times the total yield in all other states combined--not counting all those tons of silver, copper, urainium and other minerals.

Reid is hopelessly intertwined in his state’s mining culture. He is the son of a miner and owns 14 abandoned mines himself. His two brothers are lawyers representing mining companies, and his son-in-law lobbies for the mining industry. And miners shovel money into his campaign war chest, almost $300,000 so far, and that figure is sure to grow in this critical election year.

And year after year, Reid comes through for his mining buddies and sponsors by single-handedly stopping mining reform legislation.

If there is anything more logical and reasonable Congress should do than modernize the General Mining Law of 1872, I’d like to know what it is. For 138 years, the law has made mining “the highest and best use” of federal lands, trumping all other uses. Miners can still stake a claim to our property and take ownership of it for pennies per acre, regardless of how many billions in gold and other minerals they extract from it.

Nationally, miners have gouged more than $400 billion in gold out of our public land, but they haven’t paid one single penny of royalties back to the U.S. Treasury--even though every other industry taking natural resources from public lands does. In Nevada, for example, one company, Toronto-based Barrick Gold, paid just $9,765 for 1,950 acres of federal land and extracted $10 billion in gold from it.

And the government or we, the public landowners, can’t say no to miners. We must sell our land for pennies. The 1872 law requires it. Remember back in the mid-1990s when President Clinton tried to stop the New World Mine near Yellowstone National Park. The only way he could do it was pay the mining claim holders $65 million, all taxpayer dollars, for federal land they paid almost nothing for and didn’t develop.

With gold selling north of $1,100/ounce and other metal prices also in the stratosphere, the public land giveaway to hard rock miners has doubled since 2003. We now have around 400,000 active mining claims on our public lands.

When the gold is gone, mining companies leave taxpayers with tab for reclaiming broken communities, poisoned waterways, and almost unimaginable wastelands. Instead, miners should be paying reasonable royalties to not only cover the cost of mined land reclamation, but also fund other federal programs--such as a good slice of the budget for the Agriculture and Interior Departments.

But this one-sided economics isn’t the biggest problem with the archaic 1872 mining law. No other industry does more permanent damage to our public lands than miners, large and small.

Some people fret over logged or overgrazed landscapes, but Mother Nature can take care of those problems in few years. But mining is forever. Even Mother Nature with all her power can’t reclaim the spoils and purify the acid water. And most mines involve permanent roads and residential developments that endure long after the miners have moved onto to the next mountain.

Even mines that never open leave a permanent impact. The vast majority of the many thousands of “wilderness cabins” dotting on the choicest tracts of formerly public land are patented mining claims given to mining companies and now private residences.

And we can plan on Senator Harry Reid making sure none of above, regardless how embarrassing this antiquated law is to a civilized society, ever changes.

In 2007, the House passed a bill with reasonable mining law reforms. It stopped the 19th Century public land giveaways and required new and existing mines to pay a small royalty to be used mostly for mined land reclamation. Even though it had plenty of support in the Senate, Reid was able to keep it from coming up for a vote.

Now, essentially the same bill, the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act (S.796, H.R. 699), has been introduced into both the House and Senate, and if Congress doesn’t take some action on it by April, it will be dead until next year. Sadly, conservationists working hard on it suspect it faces the same fate as the 2007 bill because Harry Reid is still there making sure it won’t happen--even though, incidentally, several of the Senate Majority Leader’s distinguished colleagues in the West, such as both senators from Colorado, New Mexico and Oregon, all Democrats, have co-sponsored the bill.

With significant democratic majorities in both houses, the time is finally right to re-write the 1872 mining law, something traditionally opposed by Republicans. But Houston, we have a little problem--the big DINO (Democrat in Name Only) standing in the way or any common sense mining law reform.

Trouble is, of course, assuming Nevada voters dump Reid this November, the floundering and increasingly unpopular Democratic party might also lose control of the House or Senate or both, which puts us right back where we’ve been for a long time, allowing miners to run roughshod over our public land with no limits or consequences, economically or environmentally.

When Congress passed our current mining law, Ulysses S. Grant lived in the White House and George Armstrong Custer was out fighting Indians. Almost unbelievable, eh? We did repeal the Homestead Act, right? Why not do the same with the biggest boondoggle of all time, the General Mining Law of 1872?

I suppose it might not seem so unbelievable if you understand how the U.S. Senate doesn’t work, where one man, owned by the mining industry, can consistently stop something as overdue as mining law reform regardless of how many members of Congress or owners of public land support it. I say, throw the bum out. I’m tired of miners getting the gold and public landowners getting the shaft.