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Angling for wilderness protection 

click to enlarge Lew Carpenter
  • Lew Carpenter
Two years ago, America's sportsmen beat back an ill-conceived proposal from a number of misguided members of Congress, led by Rep. Richard Pombo, R- Calif., to essentially liquidate huge chunks of the country's public lands, using mining companies as a convenient vehicle for that purpose.

The scheme was exposed for what it was: a way to raise money for industry and the federal coffers by converting land of acute value to hunters and anglers, among others, to private ownership. The land, once "purchased" by industry, could then be developed, essentially without regulation.

The results of this thwarted effort could have included "no trespassing" signs on previously accessible public land, and trophy homes and condos constructed within eyeshot of some of the last, best places to hunt and fish in America.

But we, as sportsmen, finally got our collective act together and, with the help of key legislators, put enough pressure on Congress to put this idea where it belongs on the political trash heap.

Unfortunately, the threat to public lands in the American West continues. A 135-year-old legal fixture dubbed simply the 1872 Mining Law remains perhaps the single, largest threat to public land degradation.

How so?

Consider this: Today, some 16,000 miles of rivers and streams in the West, including about 40 percent of the region's headwater streams, suffer from toxic mining-related runoff. Every year, billions of dollars are removed from the earth in the form of minerals ranging from gold, silver, zinc and copper to more mundane and even comical commodities, like cat litter and pumice.

In turn, the American taxpayer gets absolutely nothing unlike oil, gas and coal companies, mining companies are exempt when it comes to paying royalties to the U.S. Treasury.

What's more, the poisonous legacy left behind heaps of chemical-laden rock and earth; sterile, trout-less streams that run red with iron-laced water; soil tainted with enough lead to actually hinder development in young children living nearby is virtually ignored.

The 1872 Mining Law does not put the onus on the mining industry for cleanup, and since the government sees nothing in the form of royalties from mining on federal land, it can't pay to clean up after the industry, either. The result is what we have now: acres upon acres of trashed country, and marred fish and wildlife habitat left behind.

As a sportsman, this sickens me. This law is in dire need of overhaul, if for no other reason than to prevent degradation of places I love to visit with rod in hand or rifle slung over my shoulder, and to keep this land in the hands of every American so our children and grandchildren might enjoy it, as we do today.

The good news: Nov. 1 marked a milestone in the push to reform the 1872 Mining Act. The Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2007 passed through the House of Representatives by a 244-166 margin a huge victory for hunters and anglers in Colorado, where operational and abandoned mines continue to pollute hunting and fishing grounds.

Certain members of Congress representing Colorado (and its wild places) should be proud of their accomplishments; others should be ashamed.

Co-sponsors of the successful bill included Colorado Reps. John Salazar, Ed Perlmutter, Diana DeGette and Mark Udall. Those voting against holding mining companies accountable for their impact on fish and wildlife habitat in Colorado included Doug Lamborn of Colorado Springs, Marilyn Musgrave and Tom Tancredo.

Now we move to a Senate vote following the first of the year. Please let Sens. Wayne Allard and Ken Salazar know it's time we start treating our public land like it belongs to all of us, and not to an industry that doesn't pay its own way and has no responsibility to clean up after itself.

You might also tell them hunters and anglers are organizing again, and are ready to act once more to protect the places dear to us.

Lew Carpenter of Denver is the Sportsmen United for Sensible Mining outreach coordinator in Colorado.

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