More than 21,300 mining claims have been staked within 10 miles of California's national parks and monuments and federal wilderness and roadless areas, according to an analysis of U.S. Bureau of Land Management records released Monday.
The claims, which have risen by more than one-third in the last four years, include more than 2,170 staked outside Death Valley National Park, 525 near Joshua Tree National Park and 285 outside Yosemite National Park. There are also 41 near the Giant Sequoia National Monument.
"If just a handful of these thousands of claims already staked turn into major mines, it could have devastating impacts on California's national treasures," said Dusty Horwitt, public lands analyst at the Environmental Working Group, the Washington-based nonprofit that issued the report.
In California and across the West, mining claims have skyrocketed in the last five years, driven by a boom in the global price of gold, copper, uranium and other metals. The rising demand, particularly from China and other developing nations, has spurred interest in reopening abandoned mining sites.
With its open pits, acid drainage, and air and water pollution, mining is the dirtiest of all resource developments, accounting for more Superfund toxic cleanup sites than any other industry. It also requires vast amounts of water for the processing of metal ore at a time when shortages are plaguing California and other western states.
The revival of hard rock mining also comes at a time when Congress is grappling with how to revise the General Mining Law of 1872 -- a statute virtually unchanged since it was signed by President Grant. Unlike the oil, gas and coal industries, which must pay royalties to extract resources from public lands, hard rock miners can dig out ore virtually for free. And, under the law, which has been the subject of fierce debate for decades, mining has precedence over ranching, hunting, fishing, conservation and recreation on public lands.
On Thursday, the House Committee on Natural Resources is to take up a proposed revision of the statute that would impose royalties on mining companies and recognize the value of water quality, fish and wildlife habitat in the consideration of claims. Roadless areas would be off-limits to new mines. Environmentalists are seeking an amendment for buffers that would protect the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and other national parks.
In 2002, California became the first state to require that open pits be refilled after a mine closes. As a result, mining companies moved to friendlier states, such as Nevada and Idaho, according to Adam Harper, former manager of the California Mining Assn., which shut down its operations in December. However, Harper said that underground mines, as well as smaller open-pit operations that don't fall under the regulations, might still be economically feasible in California.
In the 10-mile perimeter around Death Valley National Park, 723 new claims have been staked in the last four years.
"We are very concerned," said park Supt. James T. Reynolds. "I hope the public understands the destruction that will occur. Development will have far-reaching impacts that our grandchildren will have to address."
Reynolds said that the biggest threat is the depletion of groundwater, which is affected not only by mining, but also by farming and rapid residential development in California and Nevada communities near the park. "If too much water is pumped from the aquifer, then the seeps in the springs in Death Valley will no longer flow," he said. "Plants will die, animals will die and they would even have to truck in water to the valley's private resort."
Reynolds is negotiating with two borite mining companies in hopes that they will donate their land to the park. And he has strenuously opposed the reopening of the Briggs mine, an open-pit cyanide operation in the Panamint Range on the park's western border. "Unfortunately, we don't have the authority to stop" any of the claims, he said.
The surge in claims also affects wilderness areas within national forests and other public lands. More than 14,400 claims have been staked within 10 miles of California wilderness areas, including Ansel Adams, John Muir, Trinity Alps and Desolation.
Federally designated roadless areas, including the watersheds that replenish the drinking water in many California cities, are also affected. Nearly 11,400 claims have been staked within 10 miles of roadless areas in the Tahoe, Stanislaus and Humboldt-Toiyabe national forests, with more than 4,600 in the last four years. Nearly 1,500 of the claims are located within the boundaries of roadless areas.
Most of the claims will never become mines, Horwitt acknowledged. "But with the price of gold rising so rapidly, deposits that might not have been economically mined could become much more attractive," he said. "Once a claim is staked, there is very little land managers can do to prevent mining. And it takes only a handful of claims to create a multimillion-dollar Superfund site."
While overall mining claims in California have jumped 19% since 2003, claims have risen in 12 western states by an average of 81%, including 239% in Colorado, 178% in Wyoming and 127% in South Dakota.
National parks in several states are threatened, including Grand Canyon, which has 815 claims within five miles of its borders and more than 2000 claims within 10 miles, many of them for uranium. Arches National Park in Utah, a jewel of red rock country and a staple of automobile ads, has more than 1,200 claims within 10 miles.