Sensible Mining: Balancing Habitat and Industry

BHA understands that mining, especially for critical minerals, is necessary. We believe, however, that it can and must be done responsibly with smart planning, stakeholder collaboration and careful implementation and development. Modernizing our current mining laws through a balanced approach will allow fish and wildlife and our outdoor traditions to coexist with development needs and reduce impacts on our natural treasures.

1872 Mining Law Reform

The 1872 Mining Law, which governs hardrock mining (gold, copper, silver, etc.) on U.S. federal public lands, was signed into law nearly 150 years ago. While economies, cultures, and politics have changed dramatically across the West since Ulysses S. Grant was president and Susan B. Anthony voted for the first time, mining laws have not. More than 270 million acres of federal land are open to hardrock mining under the 1872 Mining Law, mostly in the Rocky Mountain West. Because mining laws have not been meaningfully reformed, many of our most treasured public lands and waters remain at risk without greater considerations for fish and wildlife habitat, vital municipal water supplies, and parity with other industries currently paying royalties for mineral extraction.

Kohler1.JPGThis issue is especially important to hunters and anglers given that lands and waters managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service provide some of the highest quality hunting and angling opportunities - and they’re accessible to anyone regardless of class, income or station in society. For example, more than 50 percent of the United States' Blue Ribbon trout streams are in public waters and provide strongholds for imperiled trout and salmon. More than 80 percent of critical habitat for elk and other ungulates is found on lands managed by the Forest Service and the BLM. Pronghorn, sage grouse, mule deer, salmon, steelhead, and countless other fish and wildlife species are similarly dependent on public lands and waters.

Unfortunately, hardrock mining and associated abandoned mines represent the largest source of pollution in the United States, with an estimated 40 percent of watersheds in the West contaminated by mine tailings and runoff. Toxic waste, such as cyanide and sulfuric acid, destroy our streams, lakes, wetlands and other waterways. Serious and often irreparable impacts to our pristine fish and wildlife habitat have resulted already, and continued pollution and acid mine drainage threaten drinking water, elevating health risks for many of our communities. To add insult to injury, hardrock mining companies do not pay royalties for minerals extracted on our public lands.

BHA encourages our decision-makers to address these issues by considering the following:

  • Abandoned mine reclamation, including Good Samaritan provisions that help conservation organizations contribute to restoration activities without assuming costly liabilities.
  • We need to create equity and generate new revenue by updating laws from 1872 that establish royalty provisions for the hardrock mining industry. Royalties are paid by every other major industry engaged in resource extraction on public lands. Rates and revenues for establishing mining claims should also be reviewed in conjunction with implementing royalty rates. A specific trust fund should be created that utilizes a portion of these revenues to expand public access and restore fish and wildlife habitat by cleaning up abandoned mines.
  • Ending patenting provisions that privatize public lands, thereby ensuring the integrity of our system of public lands and waters.
  • Establishing a robust bonding and reclamation funding system that creates greater certainty for restoration activities and cleanup should a company declare bankruptcy or fail to meet reclamation standards post-mining.

Critical Minerals

Cobalt_Ore_PAID.jpgCritical minerals are found extensively in everyday life. They’re in the car you drive, the cell phone you scroll through, wind turbines and solar panels generating electricity and the television giving you a weather forecast and the news each morning. They’re used in airplanes, precision guided missiles and submarines. Importantly, they are also vital components for renewable energy technologies that can help address climate change and its associated consequences for fish and wildlife habitat.

They are, as their name implies, critical to the national and economic security of the United States. But their extraction and production come with impacts. The result of a mine established in the wrong place, or done in the wrong way, can impair fish and wildlife habitat, hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation opportunity, and local businesses dependent on healthy public lands and waters. Irresponsible mining can send poisonous sludge down rivers and pollute lakes and watersheds for centuries, if not longer. It can cost billions of dollars to clean up. Conversely, a mine in the right place, done responsibly, can minimize its footprint and be an economic and social asset to a rural community.

BHA and our partners jointly developed the following report:

Critical Minerals: A Conservation Perspective

Of specific note to anglers, hunters and outdoor recreationists of all stripes, the report included 61 recommendations, including calls to action affecting public lands and watersheds. These include revising public land planning processes, streamlining environmental reviews, and seeking recommendations to reduce “unnecessary” impacts that protected public lands like wilderness areas and national monuments have on mining. This is a complex issue, and we need informed collaborative solutions to chart a responsible path forward – we present this report as a step in that direction.

An abandoned Alaska MineUnfortunately, half of the known critical mineral deposits in the U.S. are within trout and salmon habitat, and one in 10 deposits are in protected public land areas like wilderness, Forest Service roadless areas and wilderness study areas. Many other critical mineral deposits overlap with sensitive sage grouse habitat and big game migration corridors. While developing more critical minerals domestically – thus reducing our dependence on vulnerable supply chains – is important to our future, we cannot risk some of the country’s most pristine natural areas in the process.

As a nation, the United States cannot mine its way out of supply chain challenges. Meeting those challenges without needlessly sacrificing some of our most precious natural areas requires a responsible, strategic approach. We need to reduce demand, recycle and mine carefully. Such an approach will allow us to meet our critical mineral needs without compromising fish and wildlife habitat and the billions of dollars of economic activity generated by hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation. When utilized in technologies that help reduce fossil fuel use, some critical minerals can also help address climate change and associated impacts on fish and wildlife.

By implementing holistic policies that create public transparency in planning processes and incorporate the best available science, we can create stronger natural resource management practices that safeguard sensitive fish and wildlife habitat and ensure the future of our hunting and fishing traditions and the growing outdoor recreation economy. 

The following tenets detailed in this report should guide exploration and extraction of critical minerals to ensure that our natural resource are given due consideration when developing policy and evaluating mine proposals:

  1. Before seeking new sources of raw materials, prioritize and fully utilize alternatives, such as recycling, substitutes to critical minerals, reprocessing old mine waste piles and ash material, and engineering advancements to reduce use and need for new mines.
  2. Evaluate critical mineral mine site proposals on public land through transparent, effective and predictable public processes – ones that include public land users, affected communities and indigenous tribes, as well as appropriate state and local governments and other stakeholders.
  3. Avoid and minimize critical mineral development impacts to important fish and wildlife habitat, including focusing operations on landscapes that already have established infrastructure.
  4. Encourage federal and state policies that support responsible critical minerals mining and avoid impacts to special places, recreational assets and high- quality fish and wildlife habitat. Where impacts are unavoidable, effects must be mitigated including through the use of compensatory mitigation.
  5. Ensure that environmental safeguards, such as the National Environmental Policy Act and current public land protections, are not circumvented, repealed or weakened for the purposes of developing critical minerals.
  6. Utilize the best available science to map critical mineral resources, identify key fish and wildlife habitat, and develop avoidance and mitigation strategies.
  7. Where critical minerals are a byproduct of other mining objectives, enforce all applicable laws – including those that govern non-critical minerals – to ensure uniformity of policy.
  8. To be considered “critical,” minerals should be subject to import vulnerability, not just import reliance. Supplies from some allies may be part of secure supply chains, even if those minerals are imported.
  9. Some places are simply too special or sensitive to mine. Where other values are deemed more important and risks too high, critical mineral mine proposals should not be approved.
  10. Allocate a portion of the revenues generated from mineral development on public lands, including critical minerals, to offset expenses for mitigation and abandoned mine reclamation.
  11. Develop new policies in formalized collaboration with all affected stakeholders, including hunters and anglers, tribes, outdoor recreation interests, labor, manufacturers and the mining industry.
  12. Seek to build enduring trust, transparency, and partnership with all stakeholders and impacted communities, which should result in more responsible mining projects, and reduced community opposition.

For an interactive web-based version of the report, visit our partners at Trout Unlimited.