Town appeals to Senate to reform 1872 Mining Law

Town officials appear before committee today

The time has finally arrived. Town officials are testifying in Washington, D.C. today, Thursday, January 24 at a U.S. Senate hearing on behalf of Crested Butte and local communities across the United States, in support of mining reforms that could give municipalities the authority to protect natural resources.




Town manager Susan Parker and Town attorney John Belkin first traveled to Washington, D.C. in September 2007, where they met with Congressional representatives in hopes of being asked back to testify on behalf of reforming the 1872 Mining Law. The law allows the transfer of public lands for mining claims at the cost of $5 per acre.

The trip proved successful as Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, requested Parker, Belkin and Crested Butte mayor Alan Bernholtz to testify during a committee’s oversight hearing.

“We were asked to testify because we are an example of the how the law affects communities currently,” Bernholtz says. “It verifies the issue (of a potentially large scale mine in our watershed) is real.”

The committee, traditionally focused on Western issues, has jurisdiction over energy policy, Indian affairs, public lands and their renewable resources, surface mining and water resources. Several politicians from Western states serve on the committee, including Senator Ken Salazar (D-Colo.).

Congress has tried to amend the 1872 Mining Law several times in the previous 135 years, including 12 years ago, when both the House and the Senate passed reform bills, but Congress adjourned before the two chambers could reach an agreement.

However, reform was re-energized when the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 2262, the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2007, in November of last year. The bill was introduced by Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.V.) and later co-sponsored by Rep. John Salazar (D-Colo.)

H.R. 2262 would apply to mines that extract minerals such as gold, copper, molybdenum and uranium from federal lands and would require mining companies to pay royalties to the government. The legislation would also set new environmental requirements for the hardrock mining industry and give local communities an increased role in federal land management decisions.

Parker, Belkin and Bernholtz’s testimony will include a profile of the Crested Butte community, a history of mining in the area and the ramifications of it, and a synopsis of the Town’s efforts to protect the watershed.

They will also explain how reform would assist the Town and local communities across the nation in their efforts to protect resources, and how Crested Butte serves as a model community for why reform is needed, Parker says.

Although Crested Butte is serving as the poster child for mining reform, Bernholtz says the committee members will see the seriousness of the town’s current situation. A large-scale molybdenum mine has been proposed within the town’s watershed by Kobex Resources and US Energy. The mining companies have stated they plan to submit their plan of operation to the U.S. Forest Service within a couple of months.

Bernholtz says the presentation will convey the soul and character of the community and the effects a mine would have on the watershed.

Belkin agrees and says, “Testifying is a really important opportunity on a national stage for our town to play in reforming a law that is 100 years old—the law could have a major impact on our town.”

Bernholtz says the three have been preparing for the presentation for several weeks now. Parker and Belkin were originally asked to testify in December, but the hearing was postponed because of an energy bill that was passed prior to the end of the year. The committee previously held a hearing on hardrock mining on September 27, 2007.

Parker says that although being asked to testify is an honor, continuous follow-up will be important to convince the Senate that reform is needed. Parker and Belkin are staying in Washington after the hearing to meet with other legislators to follow up on their testimony.

Parker and Belkin are planning to meet with Ken Salazar after the hearing. “We want to meet with him to reiterate and emphasize our need for his assistance to make sure the bill contains language that provides the necessary protections we need as a municipality,” Parker says.

According to Bob Salter, High County Citizens’ Alliance mineral resources director, the nonprofit recently sent out an action alert to members to contact Ken Salazar to encourage the senator to support reform.

“We believe (Ken) Salazar is a key player in the development of the language in the bill and we want to encourage him to develop a good bill that at a minimum includes measures to protect municipal watersheds like ours,” Salter says.

According to Matt Garrington, field director for Environment Colorado, Ken Salazar has taken a keen interest in mining issues, especially abandoned mines.

“One could expect him to provide input on that issue, and how we fund clean-up of abandoned mines,” Garrington says.

A Senate bill has not yet been drafted. Salter says it is unknown when a bill might come out of the Senate, if at all.

Parker says she hopes this trip is as successful as the previous trip. “Ultimately, we hope the Senate passes a bill with as much of the proposed language as possible,” Parker says. 

On Wednesday prior to the hearing, a diverse group of private landowners, hunters and anglers, taxpayer advocates, local elected officials, outdoor recreationalists, and conservationists held a press conference on the State Capitol steps in Denver, urging Colorado’s senators to support an overhaul of the 1872 Mining Law.

According to Garrington, the purpose of the press conference was to convey to Ken Salazar and other senators that there is wide and diverse support for reforming the current mining laws.

“Mining is an important element of our economy, but it has to be balanced with other important values such as wild land, tourism and recreation, and clean water to drink,” Garrington says. 

Since 2003, new mineral claims on federal public lands in Colorado have increased 239 percent, according to a media advisory dated January 21. Garrington says those mining claims are endangering treasured backcountry areas, including Mount Emmons, known locally as Red Lady.

“We hope the Senate will follow in the footsteps of the House and pass good legislation,” Garrington says. “This bill could go a long way in helping to protect treasured lands such as Red Lady.”

Similar press conferences were held in Montana and New Mexico last week. According to Elyssa Rosen, consultant for the Pew Campaign for Responsible Mining, there is a movement across the West to influence mining reform. The Pew Campaign is calling on the Senate to draft and pass a bill that addresses water quality, royalties, reclamation, and local authority and control.

“Most users of public lands have to pay, and we think the (hardrock mining) industry should also have to pay its fair share,” Rosen says. 

Crested Butte testifying is also important, Rosen says, because it shows how mining affects local communities.

“Local communities should be able to say ‘This mine doesn’t reinforce our values locally,’ and be able to suggest that the lands not be mined,” Rosen says.

Parker, Belkin and Bernholtz’s testimony will be given at 9:30 a.m. EST on Thursday, January 24 and may be televised on CSPAN or CSPAN 2. The testimony will also be streamed on the committee’s website. 


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