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There is much to agree with in this op-ed about the General Mining Act of 1872. One of the most pernicious laws in American environmental history, the General Mining Act gives hard-rock mine owners precedent over almost all federal land for almost no money. It’s a major black mark on Grant’s presidential record, as it has not only caused widespread environmental damage in the American West with cleanup costs in the many billions, but it has also starved federal treasuries of billions in royalties.

So the act law desperately needs to be changed. Even federally designated Wild and Scenic Rivers can be blasted to bits by mining companies and only an act of Congress can change that. This is about to happen to Oregon’s Chetco River, a great salmon-spawning stream. Maybe it can be stopped, but given the current makeup of Congress, I’m skeptical. That Oregon’s congressional delegation is against it is the major reason for hope.

But I do have one nit to pick. In what I assume is a rhetorical device to make modern mining seem even more horrible, the authors engage in some false history, writing:

In contrast to the pick-and-shovel operations of a century ago, most modern mines are large-scale operations that use toxic chemicals to extract metals from the ore, and they generate vast amounts of mine waste. After these mines close, treating the polluted water in perpetuity is often necessary.

Actually, the idea of the pick and shovel operations is not true. By 1872, hardrock mining was almost entirely corporatized, using the most modern technologies to extract ore from deep within the earth. By 1872, the foothills of the Sierra had been literally hosed down in order to find gold seams deep beneath the earth. This process had already started by the 1850s. Here’s a picture of a hydraulic mining operation in the 19th century Sierra Nevada.

Mining operations around the West were the same. We have this idea of a grizzled old man finding a big hunk of gold in the middle of the river and yelling “Eureka!” but that’s only ever been true in the first days of a mining district. One of the many historical things the show “Deadwood” did very well was get at this transition. The Black Hills gold fields were very quickly taken over by large conglomerations using brutal methods against both labor and nature to find the color. Any number of other western mining districts–Coeur d’Alene, Leadville, Butte, Virginia City–share essentially the same history.

This doesn’t take anything way from the 21st century implications of the General Mining Act. We need to protect this land and mining operations are horrible things. But it’s also important to note that they have been horrible for a very long time and there’s no reason to ignore that.

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