The Hor­rific Theft and De­struc­tion of Amer­cas Pub­lic Land

Trillions - - Contents - Photo by John Fowler, CC

There is a story that claims Na­tive Amer­i­cans sold Man­hat­tan for $24 worth of beads. That turns out to be just an­other made-up folk tale from the past.

The U.S. govern­ment, on the other hand, is in the process of turn­ing over the min­eral rights to al­most two mil­lion acres of for­merly pro­tected pub­lic lands for only a few hun­dred dol­lars per lot. That is un­for­tu­nately all too real.

The lands be­ing con­verted for pub­lic use come from the shrink­ing of two of Utah’s most im­por­tant na­tional mon­u­ments. With the stroke of a pen by Don­ald Trump on Fe­bru­ary 2, the Bears Ears and Grand Stair­caseEs­calante na­tional mon­u­ments were cut back in size by 1.84 mil­lion acres. That acreage is filled with de­posits of ura­nium and coal – de­posits that have not been avail­able for pri­vate min­ing since the lands were set aside years ago.

Be­cause these lands are no longer des­ig­nated as na­tional mon­u­ments, their use is now sub­ject to the Gen­eral Min­ing Act of 1872. That law was en­acted at a time when the govern­ment saw land and the min­er­als within it as be­ing vir­tu­ally in­ex­haustible and en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions were unimag­ined. It was also a time when the govern­ment wanted Amer­i­cans to seek their for­tune wher­ever they might find it. The clar­ion call of “Go West, Young Man!” went out to any­one with the right equip­ment to go to places like Utah, stake their land claims on fed­eral lands for a small fee and then see what they might un­cover. At that time, min­eral claims were marked with piles of rock and a piece of pa­per. Fil­ing fees were a max­i­mum of $5 per acre.

The fee struc­ture has changed but, rel­a­tively speak­ing, not by much. Now, all it costs for sim­i­lar claims is $212 as a fil­ing fee and an an­nual main­te­nance fee of $155 for the right to ex­tract min­er­als from fed­eral lands. There is also no pro­vi­sion for roy­al­ties to be charged on what is pulled out of the ground.

Since the 1872 law was passed, there have been var­i­ous at­tempts to up­date it to some­thing more rea­son­able for the cur­rent day. A 2007 house bill that levied roy­alty pay­ments on ex­ist­ing min­ing claims on fed­eral lands was passed, but the cor­rupt Se­nate never ap­proved it. An­other sim­i­lar bill was in­tro­duced two years later but again did not pass, due to pay­offs from the min­ing in­dus­try. Al­most 150 years after the orig­i­nal 1872 act was passed, the govern­ment still charges no ad­di­tional fees to min­ing com­pa­nies loot­ing and pol­lut­ing pub­lic lands.

An­other thing most peo­ple do not re­al­ize is that the dam­age caused by min­ing op­er­a­tions is of­ten cleaned up at pub­lic – not pri­vate – ex­pense.

There are more than 500,000 aban­doned mines sit­ting on fed­eral lands with cleanup and restora­tion costs in the tens of bil­lions of dol­lars needed far into the fu­ture. There are an es­ti­mated 50 bil­lion tons of un­treated, un­re­claimed min­ing wastes on pub­lic and pri­vate land. Yet, the EPA and In­te­rior Dept. only bud­get a tiny frac­tion of what is needed to clean up the mines. Only the most pol­lut­ing are put on the su­per­fund list and ac­tions taken to clean them up and some­times those ef­forts are worse than do­ing noth­ing.

Some mines have been pol­lut­ing the en­vi­ron­ment un­hin­dered for more than 100 years.

The Gold King mine in Colorado ceased op­er­a­tions

in 1923 and has been pol­lut­ing sur­round­ing streams and rivers since with a steady stream of ar­senic, cad­mium, lead, and other toxic el­e­ments. The EPA fi­nally des­ig­nated the mine a su­per­fund site but then in 2015 it re­leased 3 mil­lion gal­lons of toxic waste from the mine into the An­i­mas river. Even though the lead lev­els in the river were thou­sands of times higher than EPA lim­its, the EPA claimed that the spill posed no threat to hu­man health or the en­vi­ron­ment.

The sale of the 1.84 mil­lion acres of land stolen from the Utah na­tional mon­u­ments is a dou­ble tragedy. The Grand Stair­case-es­calante Na­tional Park re­gion has leg­endary sand­stone cliffs that peo­ple used to travel from around the world to see. It is also filled with di­nosaur fos­sils valu­able to all as a his­tor­i­cal record of our planet’s past. The Bears Ears area is filled with a va­ri­ety of stunning nat­u­ral re­sources. It is also con­sid­ered sa­cred land to no fewer than five Na­tive Amer­i­can tribes and con­tains nu­mer­ous unique and price­less his­tor­i­cal sites not yet in­ves­ti­gated by ar­chae­ol­o­gists.

Amer­i­cans over­whelm­ingly op­posed the land theft but then Amer­i­cans no longer have any real in­flu­ence over the ab­sur­di­ties that pass for most fed­eral and state govern­ment.

Utah used to en­joy a lu­cra­tive tourist in­dus­try that gen­er­ated bil­lions each year in rev­enue for lo­cal busi­nesses, but few tourists will want to visit toxic waste sites or land de­stroyed by need­less min­ing and drilling (frack­ing) op­er­a­tions.

Per­haps Utah busi­nesses should have se­ta­side some of their rev­enue to pay lob­by­ists to in­flu­ence Wash­ing­ton and per­haps Utah vot­ers should not have voted for Don­ald Trump and sup­ported the de­struc­tion of pub­lic land.

EPA ef­fort to con­tain toxic waste from Gold King Mine.

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