A lot glitters in the Silver State.
Our precious minerals are one example. The lights of Las Vegas are another. But our clean mountain streams and high desert sunsets have a gleam of their own. As do the eyes of a child watching a frolicking fawn or the smile of a hunter spying a prized bighorn ram.
I spent most of my career helping Nevada manage — I hope wisely — its natural resources through the Department of Wildlife. I served under both Republican and Democratic governors as the head of that agency for more than 16 years.
Over the years, I met thousands of Nevadans who care deeply for their natural heritage. I watched as Nevada’s bighorn sheep and Rocky Mountain elk grew from relative scarcity to world-class, world-renowned resources.
I also experienced some things I wish I had not. Back in the 1970s, I helped record the deaths of waterfowl and other migratory birds that landed on cyanide-tainted tailing ponds outside gold mines. I saw ancient migration routes for mule deer disrupted by heavy truck traffic to and from mining operations.
Now, my father was a hard-rock miner and rancher near Tonopah, and I have friends in the industry. I fully appreciate the benefits that a healthy mining industry provides both to my life personally and to the economy of Nevada.
At the same time, I have learned that we can do a better job of avoiding and mitigating the impacts that mining has on our land, water and wildlife.
For example, working hand-in-hand with mining companies, we were able to develop tools to prevent waterfowl from landing on tainted tailing ponds. And we created special funds to mitigate the damage mining operations have on big game migration routes, winter range and other habitat.
When it comes to mining on public lands in the American West, the bedrock law is the federal Mining Law of 1872. That bill was passed the same year Mark Twain published “Roughing It,” his famous account of a stagecoach ride across frontier Nevada. A lot has changed since then, and it’s time that the Mining Law of 1872 was modernized as well.
Let me highlight some of the outdated provisions of the 1872 Mining Law:
— Privatization of public land. Under the law, mining companies can gain ownership of public land at far below market rates. The effect is the net loss of public land and lost access to valuable places. With America’s population now exceeding 300 million, our public land is a birthright with which we should not part.
— Handcuffed land managers. Part of sensible mining is recognizing that some places are too special to mine. One place that comes to mind is Nevada’s Montana Mountains. This is prime habitat for mule deer, pronghorn and upland game birds, yet it is ringed with mining claims. Under the 1872 Mining Law, mining is automatically the highest priority for public land, trumping clean water, wildlife habitat or other resources that may be more valuable to more people over the long haul.
— Insufficient payments to repair mining’s impact on land and water. Mining companies have profited handsomely from digging and processing the public’s ore, but they have left very real impacts on land, water and wildlife that belong to all of us. It’s only fair that these companies pay just compensation for those impacts. Right now, the mining companies virtually get a free ride.
A movement is afoot in Congress to reform the 1872 Mining Law and fix these problems. Such reform is warranted. Frankly, it’s long overdue.
To tell the truth, even staunch mining industry advocates have a difficult time defending the 1872 Mining Law with a straight face.
Most know such a reform is inevitable, because it only makes sense.
I am proud of my career working with the mining industry to solve inevitable impacts mining has on public land, water and wildlife. I believe in balance and solutions. I believe the time is right to sit down, roll up our sleeves and get to work on a better future.
Here in the Silver State and across America, our grandkids will thank us for it.
William Molini, former head of Nevada’s Department of Wildlife, now works for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. He lives in Reno. Learn more at www.sensiblemining.org.