The Clinton administration has taken a major step toward dismantling a law that - for better or for worse - has tied the "new" American West of environmentalism and cybercommuting to the old West of prospectors and pick axes.
Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck announced this week that 429,000 acres along Montana's Rocky Mountain Front - an area of rich wildlife habitat - would be off limits to hardrock mining. The move is aimed squarely at the General Mining Law of 1872, an act signed by President Ulysses Grant that was designed to populate the interior West by luring white settlers with the promise of mineral riches.
For years, reformers have tried to amend the law, which critics claim has cost the United States Treasury billions of dollars while leaving behind a legacy of environmental degradation. But so far, Congress (especially the Senate, which is proportionately dominated by conservative Westerners) has failed to do so.
Most mining these days is done not by some Gabby Hayes type with a dusty burro, but by major corporations - many of them headquartered in other countries. Still, most of the work is done by local people, some of them from generations of miners, whose incomes sustain mountain communities. And along with environmental restrictions on cattle ranching and logging, these recent attempts to reduce mining's impact on the land are seen by many as unfair.
"For the past 10 years we've been under constant attack," says Jill Andrews, executive director of the Montana Mining Association. "When mining, oil and gas, and timber were allowed, we were near the top in per capita income. Now we're 51st - even lower than the District of Columbia."
Four years ago, some $27 million a year was spent on hardrock mineral exploration in Montana, almost all of it going into the local economy. Today, says Ms. Andrews, the figure is down to about $400,000.
"We have just been devastated," says Andrews, whose trade organization has about 450 members, most of them small miners and suppliers.
Views, not gold, draw today's settlers
These days, however, it's not the promise of gold or platinum but the see-forever views and relative quietude that attract the new pioneers, many of them from back East or urban California.
This change in the demographic balance is one reason Montanans last November voted to ban "heap-leach" mining, a process in which a cyanide solution is sprayed over large piles of ore to extract microscopic bits of gold.
Gov. Marc Racicot (R) and most other elected officials in the state opposed the ballot measure, which the mining association is hoping to reverse - either through the state legislature or by another vote.
Environmentalism good for economy
But environmental protection can result in a net plus for Western economies, says Thomas Power, chairman of the economics department at the University of Montana in Missoula. Restoring land used in mining can lead to increased tourism and attract nonresource businesses such as high-tech companies, he asserts.
Reforming the 1872 mining law, Professor Power has reported, "would make a significant contribution to the ongoing economic vitality of the West."
Under the law, those who hold mining claims on federal land can obtain a "patent" (title) to the land for as little as $5 an acre and to extract minerals without having to pay any royalty into the federal treasury. (Coal, oil, and gas industries operating on federal land pay a 12.5 percent royalty.)
Critics also note that the 1872 law includes no requirement that the disturbed land be restored to an environmentally safe state.
The Mineral Policy Center reports that hardrock mining across the West has resulted in more than 557,000 abandoned mines left unreclaimed. Among these are 61 mines so polluted that they are on the Superfund National Priorities List.
"The mining law is a relic of a bygone era," says Stephen D'Esposito, president of the Mineral Policy Center, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization in Washington. "Since passage of the mining law, the federal government has given away more than $231 billion in publicly owned minerals."
"When these policies were originally enacted, they may have been called progress," Jill Lancelot, legislative director of the budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, told a Senate hearing last year. "However, over a century later we call it corporate welfare."
'War on the West?'
Forest Service Chief Dombeck's action this week is the latest in a series of steps he's taken to reduce the impact of logging and mining on federal land, including a suspension of new road building in national forests.
Speaking of the General Mining Law of 1872 this week, he said, "Many areas are simply not appropriate for certain activities, such as hardrock mining."
"We must protect the last best places and restore the rest," said Dr. Dombeck, a fisheries biologist.
The US Bureau of Land Management, the nation's other big landlord, also is reviewing its mining regulations with an eye to more environmental protection.
This, too, is sure to heighten the political debate over what some critics call the Clinton administration's "war on the West."