The days of the Wild Wild West may be over, but one piece of legislation continues to affect modern-day politics. Starting today, private citizens and companies will be able to buy mine claims on two hotly contested public lands in Utah thanks to an antiquated law signed by President Ulysses S. Grant nearly 150 years ago.
"Once those lands are open to location under the 1872 mining law, pretty much anyone can go out there and, for a very small fee, stake a mining claim of up to 20 acres," said Lauren Pagel, policy director for Earthworks. "They can hold that mining claim for as long as they pay their fee and then eventually mine on it if they want to."
The activity is officially permitted under what's called the General Mining Law of 1872, which authorizes the exploration and mining of economic materials, such as uranium, gold, and copper, on federal public lands. It's expected to affect two national monuments that served as a catalyst in an ongoing debate about federal overreach on public lands: Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.
Though the debate has been going on for decades, it was most recently revisited in December when the Trump administration reversed an Obama-era executive order that protected the areas from commercial activity. That proclamation goes into effect today, meaning that the public land is now open to things like mining and oil extraction.
According to Pagel, there's been some interest in uranium, a resource that's used to power nuclear reactors, since the price is so low.
"The thing about the 1872 mining law is that a uranium mining company could go out, stake a claim and then hold that claim for ten or 20 years until the price of uranium goes up. Then they could be potentially mining in one of our treasured areas."
But, in reality, that's not expected to happen, at least according to Curtis Moore, the Vice President of Marketing and Corporate Development at Energy Fuels, the largest uranium company in the U.S. He says the hype about a possible land rush to extract uranium from the now opened areas has no merit.
"I've seen some people say that there's going to be this modern-day land rush out there. That's simply false. That's not going to happen," he said.
And that's for several reasons, Moore added. During an interview with Circa, he emphasized that, until the end of 2016 when President Obama was finishing up his last few weeks in office, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments were already open to mining claims. In fact, he says over the course of the last 150 years, there's "probably already hundreds, if not thousands" of mining claims in the area.
"People need to realize that a mining claim doesn't equal a mine. It probably doesn't equal a future mine. It's just a place where somebody can explore and prospect."
Moore substantiated his claim by pointing to when uranium prices were extremely high, standing at about $130 per pound. (For comparison, the price for one pound of uranium is about $25). Even then, he said, mines didn't immediately pop up.
While it may be relatively easy for any Joe Schmoe to buy a mining claim, that's hardly the end of what Moore called a "million step" process.
"The biggest hurdle is permitting. We are heavily regulated by state, federal and local authorities, and we have to go through a whole host of permitting and licensing processes where government officials and regulators do all sorts of analyses about what are the impacts of this mine going to be on wildlife, air, water, cultural resources."
Moore admitted that his company did push for a reduction in size of Bears Ears during the Department of Interior's public comment period before the final decision was made, but by only about two percent-- not the 85 percent that the Trump administration announced in December.
"We thought it was appropriate to create a buffer between our existing uranium mining operations and this new national monument," he said."
The road to reducing the national monuments hasn't gone without scrutiny. Tribal leaders who see the land as sacred, as well as companies like Patagonia, are suing the administration in an effort to protect the lands.
And Pagel still has her concerns, as well, especially when it comes to the environmental impact of mining.
"Mining is very destructive. It usually ends up moving tons of rock, and that allows for something called acidic mine drainage to form. You have very acidic water that ends up potentially contaminating the ground and surface water in the area," she continued.
For those reasons and more, Pagel doesn't think the issue will end today, especially during a time when local communities continue to vocalize their opposition to the national monument reduction.
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