Chainsaws and logging trucks are familiar threats to forests. Less visible is the threat to national forests– and parks, and wilderness and roadless areas– posed by the picks, shovels and earthmovers of hardrock mining.

Growing scarcity and rising prices have made many minerals valuable again. As a result, an increasing number of mining claims have been filed in the West in recent years.

Many of these claims are close to– in some cases immediately outside– national park and forest boundaries. Some are next to wilderness areas, or even inside roadless areas.

According to a report from the Washington watchdog Environmental Working Group (EWG), more than 21,000 mining claims have been filed near federal public lands. EWG’s study showed 3,300 claims within 10 miles of national parks and forests in California.

These include 2,170 claims near Death Valley National Park, 525 near Joshua Tree National Park and 285 near Yosemite National Park. There are 41 claims staked near Giant Sequoia National Monument.

Not every claim becomes a working mine. But mining is such a destructive activity that even a single mine on the periphery of a park or forest can cause considerable damage.

Open pit mining scrapes off forest and topsoil and can obliterate whole mountains. The toxic run-off from mining can seep into the water table and contaminate drinking water. Waste pools of toxic leachate are not something you want near the headwaters of important watersheds.

And if a mine doesn’t pay off, the mine owners can simply walk away, sometimes leaving municipalities, counties and states to clean up the toxic messes the mines leave behind.

Yet because of a nineteenth century law meant to encourage development of the West after the Civil War, no one can do much to stop it.

The General Mining Law of 1872 permits miners to stake a claim anywhere and mine it. The miners need pay no royalties to the government. There are no provisions for restoring ruined landscapes or for cleaning up environmental damage. Under the 1872 law, mining companies can even operate within public land boundaries if the claim was staked before the area was designated public land.


On Thursday, Oct. 18, the House Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) will be considering Rahall’s Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2007 (H.R. 2262). This bill would counteract some of the worst features of the 1872 Mining Law, charging mine owners an eight-percent royalty, restricting what lands can be claimed, and enforcing environmental protection standards, including reclamation.

The following California representatives are co-sponsors of Rahall’s bill:

Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys)
Jim Costa (D-Fresno)
Mike Honda (D-Campbell)
Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose)
George Miller (D-Martinez))
Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove)
Fortney “Pete” Stark (D-Fremont)
Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara)
Anna Eshoo (D-Atherton
Doris Matsui (D-Sacramento)
Adam Schiff (DPasadena)
Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles)
Lynn Woolsey (D-Petaluma)

If your representative is on this list, thank him or her and let them know you support this legislation. If they are not on this list, write or email them and urge them to become co-sponsors of H.R. 2262, the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2007.


Forests Forever:
Their Ecology, Restoration, and Protection
John J. Berger

from Forests Forever Foundation
and the Center for American Places