Reid is Public Lands Enemy No. 1

By Beacon Staff

I used this headline a couple of years ago when writing about Mark Rey, former Bush Administration boss of the U.S. Forest Service. Prior to Rey’s reign, former California Republican Congressmen Richard Pombo held the honor. Now, we have a new Public Lands Enemy No. 1, none other than current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

As I write this, the second or third most powerful Democrat in the country is locked in a bitter battle to keep his power. It’s a long time until Nov. 2, but early polls show Reid losing to any of the four Republican challengers.

Normally, people working to protect our public lands champion Dems, but in this case, we might be better off with an anti-environment freshman Republican who wouldn’t have the unbridled power the majority leader wields.

To put it mildly, Reid is the darling of mining industry. And to say mining is big in Nevada is an understatement. The Silver State is 87 percent federal land, and in one year, 2007, Nevada miners extracted nearly 190 tons of gold – three times the total of all other states combined – plus many tons of silver, copper, and urainium.

Reid is intertwined in mining culture, another understatement. He’s the son of a miner, and Reid 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 number will mushroom in this critical election year. And year after year, Reid comes through for his mining buddies by single-handedly stopping mining law reform.

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 on our land and take ownership of it for next to nothing, regardless of how many billions in gold and other minerals they extract from it.

Nationally, miners have gouged $400 billion in gold out of our land, but they’ve never paid one penny of royalties 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 $9,765 for 1,950 acres of federal land (five bucks per acre) and then extracted $10 billion in gold from it (five-million bucks per acre).

Most maddening, we, the public landowners, can’t say no. The 1872 law requires us to sell our land for peanuts. Remember back in the mid-1990s when President Bill Clinton tried to stop the New World Mine near Yellowstone National Park? The only way he could do it was by buying out the claim holders for $65 million, all taxpayer dollars.

With gold selling for $1,150/ounce and other metal prices 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 federal lands.

And when the gold is gone, mining companies leave taxpayers with the tab for reclaiming broken communities, poisoned waterways, and almost unimaginable wastelands. Miners should pay royalties to not only cover the reclamation costs, but also fund mining-related federal programs.

People worry about over-logged or over-grazed landscapes, but Mother Nature can fix those problems in a few years. Mining is forever. Even Mother Nature can’t reclaim mine spoils and purify acid water. Most mines involve permanent roads and residential developments that endure after miners move onto to the next mountain.

And Reid will make sure none of above changes, regardless of how embarrassing this antiquated law is to a civilized society.

In 2007, the House passed a reform bill. It stopped land giveaways and required miners to pay a small royalty. It had enough support in the Senate to pass, but Reid kept it from coming up for a vote.

In 2009, the bill was re-introduced, but even though many of Reid’s distinguished colleagues, such as both senators from Colorado, New Mexico and Oregon, all Democrats, co-sponsored it (but neither Democratic senator from Montana did) Reid has already doomed the bill with his inaction.

So sad to say, but we might have missed our window of opportunity. With Democratic majorities in both houses and a Democrat in the White House, the time was finally right to revise the 1872 law, something Republicans traditionally oppose. Trouble is, of course, assuming Nevada voters dump Reid, the floundering Democratic party might lose control of the House or Senate or both.

I suppose all this might not seem so unbelievable if you understand how Congress doesn’t work. The system allows one man, totally owned by the mining industry, to consistently stop something as overdue as mining law reform. So I say, throw the bum out. I’m tired of miners getting the gold and public landowners getting the shaft.

I can’t imagine the current situation getting worse, but then I might be underestimating Senator Reid and his mining sponsors. I suppose we taxpayers could pay miners to ravage our land instead just letting them do it for free.