Perhaps no other group of people can attest to the significance of damage inflicted upon the land by past mining activity here in the Northwest than hunters and anglers.
That might sound overstated, but think about it. We hunt and we fish, and a lot of that activity takes place on public land, where the impacts from mining are age-old and still visible.
Even the casual angler knows that streams running over rust-tinged gravel aren’t viable fisheries. Hunters, too, know that mining activity, even if it is 100 years old and long gone, isn’t conducive to quality big-game habitat.
Unfortunately, for 136 years, mining has enjoyed priority status on public land all over the country. And its toxic legacy has hardly been addressed, simply because existing laws make it easy for mining companies and mining interests to leave behind a lasting mess, knowing the owners of the land – the American public – can do little to hold industry accountable.
With help from the U.S. Senate, that can change.
Last fall, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to reform the antiquated 1872 Mining Act. The new bill strips mining of its No. 1 priority status when it comes to public land management and allows roadless areas and other special places to be set aside from new mining claims. It also puts the cleanup onus on the industry, not the government, which should not have to reclaim played-out mines at public expense.
It also ends forever the practice of “patenting,” which allowed mining interests to actually acquire public land for as little as $2.50 an acre.
Finally, the bill requires the industry to pay a royalty on the commodity it pulls from the ground. This last item is important, as every other extractive industry on public land in the United States pays a royalty for the commodities they produce – as they should. It’s about time.
The issue is now before the Senate and, predictably, industry is lobbying hard against a strong bill. After all, the archaic 1872 Mining Act is the golden goose for mining interests, both foreign and domestic.
But common sense must prevail, and our own Washington senators, Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, can do their part to ensure that happens. With substantive reform to the 1872 Mining Act, hunters, anglers and other conservationists in Washington and around the West will be among the direct beneficiaries.
Not only can such legislation actually resurrect fish and wildlife habitat through comprehensive and much-needed cleanup efforts, but it can ensure future generations of hunters and anglers that vital habitat – and, by extension, opportunity – is protected.
Today, mining and past mining activity in the West pollute, in one way or another, 40 percent of our headwater streams. New mining claims are staked all the time, including two huge new mines proposed in Washington, one on Buckhorn Mountain in Okanogan County, the other on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest just north of Mount St. Helens. Local opposition to both of these proposals is high.
There are also more than 3,000 abandoned mines in Washington. Many, such as the Polar Star mine in Skamania County and the Monte Cristo-Mystery mine in Snohomish County, continue to spew toxic runoff into streams that might otherwise support viable populations of wild trout and other native species. Even in some areas accessible to ocean-going salmon and steelhead, spawning and rearing habitat is limited by acidic runoff from abandoned mines.
Big-game habitat is sullied by thousands of toxic tailings piles, and in areas where active mining is still occurring under the 136-year-old law, industrial-grade roads bisect game habitat and industrial traffic drives deer and elk away.
Reforming the antiquated 1872 Mining Act is essential so that our children and grandchildren can have the opportunity to fish and hunt on public land years from now. What hunter or angler doesn’t want that?
John McGlenn is president of the Washington Wildlife Federation. Mark Taylor is president of the Washington Council of Trout Unlimited.