When President Ulysses S Grant signed the 1872 Mining Law, the law was meant to encourage settlement of the Westï¿½s vast public lands. It tempted entrepreneurs westward by offering land to miners at $5 an acre.
***image1***So what does that seemingly ancient law have to do with New Mexico today? Lots: Itï¿½s still on the books. But that could soon change. A group of organizations, ranging from the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance to the Eastern Navajo Dinï¿½ Against Uranium Mining, is pushing the US Senate to tackle mining reform. Activists hope New Mexicoï¿½s US senators will lead the way when the issue comes before the US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources later this month.
ï¿½What we are urging is sensible mining law reform that protects wildlife and all New Mexicans,ï¿½ Kent Salazar, president of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, says.
The 1872 law applies to more than 300 million acres of public land in the West. Within the past few years, there has been a 50 percent increase in the number of new mining claims in New Mexico, according to Gregory Green, representative from the Pew Campaign for Responsible Mining.
Not only do hardrock mining companies still get a great deal on land, they donï¿½t pay royalties to the state or federal governmentsï¿½unlike companies producing coal, oil or gas on public lands.
There are also environmental issues: Mines can leave behind toxic remains and, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, hardrock mining has contaminated 40 percent of the western United Statesï¿½ headwaters.
According to Salazar, federal land management agencies are not allowed to deny permits to mining companies, even if they plan to work in sensitive areas, because mining is considered the landï¿½s ï¿½highest and best use.ï¿½
At the state level, in 1993, the Legislature passed the New Mexico Mining Act, which regulates various hardrock mining activities in the state, including mine reclamation.
Bill Brancard, mining and minerals director of the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, points out that at the time, the mining industry criticized state reform as harmful to business. In fact, the value of mineral production, he says, has reached new levels in recent years. ï¿½What that says to me is we have these controls in place and the mining industry is still viable,ï¿½ he says. He too has joined the chorus for federal mining reform.
Last year, the US House of Representatives passed a federal reform bill that would prohibit mines that might cause ï¿½perpetualï¿½ water pollution, require companies to pay royalties on minerals mined from public lands and allow land managers to balance mining requests with other land uses.
After its passage, US Sen. Pete Domenici, R-NM, was publicly quoted doubting the likelihood that the Senate would follow the Houseï¿½s lead but, in September, his office announced he was reaching out to a bipartisan group of senators on the issue of mining reform, with the hope of emphasizing ï¿½major issues like royalties, environmental concerns and abandoned mines.ï¿½
US Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-NM, acknowledged that the mining industry provides jobs and ï¿½fuels local economies,ï¿½ while at the same time it has been criticized ï¿½on both fiscal and environmental grounds.ï¿½
ï¿½In my view,ï¿½ he said in a prepared statement, ï¿½the root of these problems is the Mining Law of 1872.ï¿½
Most activists are hopeful Bingaman also will support federal reform and, for his part, Green is optimistic that the soon-to-be retiring Domenici will, too:
ï¿½Weï¿½re hoping that Domenici will see this as a legacy,ï¿½ he says.