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Again, I mentioned at the beginning the canary in the cage, and that is exactly what we are seeing. Because if these impacts and activities can happen in and around national park units, they can happen in our backyards and all across America, not just on the public lands. We appreciate the privilege of being able to testify
before the committee, and I am ready to answer any questions. Thank you, sir.
(Prepared statement of Mr. Pritchard, with attachments, follows:
BEFORE THE SUBCOMMITTEE ON MINING AND NATURAL RESOURCES
U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee, my name is Paul C. Pritchard, President of the National Parks and Conservation Association (NPCA), a 289.000-member nonprofit citizens organization, founded in 1919, dedicated to enhancing the protection and public understanding of our national park system. NPCA appreciates the opportunity to appear before the subcommittee to present our views on H.R. 918.
NPCA commends the Chairman for the introduction of H.R. 918, which is an important starting point for reform of a 119-year old law that is completely out of step with late-twentieth century land management practices. Your leadership and commitment to reforming the 1872 Mining Law via an open and constructive public process is deeply appreciated. We know that these efforts are consistent with your excellent record of supporting wise mineral policies that take the concerns of sensitive lands into account.
NPCA would like also to recognize and salute the cosponsors of H.R. 918, including Interior Committee Chairman Miller and National Parks and Public Lands Subcommittee Chairman Vento, who have also put concerns for wise public policy above protecting entrenched interests who have long benefited at the expense of the federal estate, the environment and the American taxpayer.
In short, NPCA believes that the 1872 Mining Law is an anachronism and an embarrassment. We recognize that this law -- passed, ironically, in the same year that Yellowstone National Park was established was originally designed to help promote Western settlement and encourage the domestic mining industry, and was not written as an "environmental" law. However, it must now be rewritten as one.
From the standpoint of the national parks, this antiquated law is now needlessly perpetuating a legacy that is endangering park resources and visitors.
Since 1872, the interaction of the Mining Law with the growth of the national park system has resulted in thousands of mining claims, scattered like
unexploded ordnance across some of our most revered and environmentally sensitive public lands. Amazingly, too, the 1872 Mining Law still allows the giveaway of public land (including national park land) Eor as little as $2.50 per acre. It returns no royalties to the government on millions of dollars worth of minerals extracted annually from federal lands even from within the national parks, which are themselves national treasures that should remain above exploitation.
Tale or already 1
Indeed, the 1872 Mining Law is a pickaxe counterpart to our present national park concessions system, which has at times also fostered damaging development within the parks, while returning a franchise fee sometimes as low as 0.75 percent on millions of dollars in gross revenues "extracted" from the parks. NPCA believes that the prevailing winds on such issues are blowing quite strongly: the more the American public learns of these practices, the more they demand that they be stopped.
Mr. Chairman, NPCA fully support comprehensive reform, and endorses the positions of our fellow conservation organizations. However, we feel that just based on the national park system alone (a small percentage of public lands affected by the 1872 Mining Law), the case for reform of the 1872 Mining Law is compelling.
Though all units of the national park system are now closed to additional claim location, the problems caused by the 1872 Mining Law remain real, and in some cases, lethal. Attached to our testimony is an article from National Parks magazine, as well as other supplementary material, that details conditions in the national parks. I shall summarize some key points concerning environmental threats to the parks posed by mining and the existing patent system, as well as health and safety threats to park visitors.
Currently, 25 national park system units contain mining claims, either because the claims were located prior to the establishment of the unit, or che unit remained open to claim location until it was closed by the Mining in the Parks Act of 1976. According to National Park Service data (July, 1990), 752 patented claims and 1,346 unpatented claims exist in the parks. The bulk of these claims . 73 percent of the unpatented claims and 74 percent of the patented claims ..
.. are located in Alaska within some of the world's most aweinspiring and fragile wilderness parks. These claims are like a sword hanging over the head of the national parks.
In addition, an estimated two-thirds of the parks face potential mineral development threats either within or around their borders. Even if only a fraction of these claims are mined, affects on the parks could be devastating. Impacts inflicted by mining, both inside and outside the parks, include erosion, sedimentation, air and water pollution, disturbance of wildlife habitat, and scarring of landscapes. In many cases, especially in the fragile alpine, desert, and arctic environments where most claims are located, these impacts are practically irreversible and beyond reclamation. But more importantly, the deficiencies of the present law are so extreme that land managers are often handicapped from even weighing relative resource values, and making intelligent decisions about the costs and benefits of mining in and around national parks and other sensitive lands.
Testimony of Paul C. Pritchard on H.R. 918 page 3
NPCA feels particularly strongly that the practice of patenting of public lands must end, period. We support Section 108 of H.R. 918 which accomplishes this goal. We oppose proposals that would patent mining claims at fair market value or through a split estate system. Abuse of the patenting system has already led to several claims in national parks being put to nonmining uses. For example, at Death Valley National Monument, a commercial resort was constructed on a patented mining claim. At Lake Mead Nacional Recreation Area, a housing subdivision, gambling casino and hotel have been erected on mining claims.
Recently, a 24-cabin lodge was constructed on patented mining claims in the heart of Denali National Park and Preserve, and the development of a recreational vehicle park on other claims has created management chaos and threatened to displace public shuttle buses on the park road. Potential for future nonmining uses with adverse impacts is particularly high in Denali and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, where development interests have expressed interest in subdividing and building commercial destination resorts on claims, many surrounded by designated wilderness.
The patenting of claims can lead to a situation in which park managers, in order to avert incompatible development, must then buy out claims at values astronomically inflated over the original net worth of the supposed minerals lying beneath the ground. This is absurd public policy that makes no sense and places national park resources at unnecessary risk.
Health and Safety of Park Visitors Endangered
In addition, some 124 units of the national park system over one-third of the units in the system located throughout all ten regions of the National Park Service, report concerns with past impacts of hard rock mining. The NPS reports a total of 10,195 abandoned mine hazards or openings found at 2,134 sites. One of the most egregious points of the 1872 law is that it Tequires no reclamation after mining. The 1976 Mining in the Parks Act gave managers the authority to demand reclamation for new nines, but it does nothing for cleaning up abandoned mines. This legacy of neglect represents a substantial health and safety risk to millions of visitors to these parks, and a serious management problem for the National Park Service.
At Grand Canyon National Park, for example, the Orphan Mine, located just yards off popular visitor routes, releases deadly radioactivity. For years, an enormous toxic tailings pile at the McClaren mine site, just outside Yellowstone National Park, was poised for environmental catastrophe. At Joshua Tree National Monument, there are an estimated 2,000 dangerous openings. Accidents at abandoned openings have resulted in visitor fatalities within recent years at Death Valley National Monument and Lake Mead National Recreation Area.
Reclamacion needs throughout the national park system have been conservatively estimated to exceed $50 million, yet there is no consistent source for these funds, Thus, NPCA strongly supports Title III of H.R. 918, which would create an Abandoned Minerals Mine Reclamation Fund to clean up environmental damage from hardrock mines.
Testimony of Paul C. Pritchard on H.R. 918
Comprehensive Reform Urgently Needed
Comprehensive reform of the 1872 Mining Law to safeguard national parks and all other public lands must address several key areas: increased discretion for land managers (including the authority to better weigh costs and benefits, and to deny mining where other values are more important), reclamation, fair return to the taxpayer, and enforcement. H.R. 918 contains numerous excellent features in these areas. In particular, we support and commend provisions of the bill that:
Establish a hardrock reclamation fund.
Grant the Forest Service full authority over hardrock mining in national
Permit citizen suits in certain instances.
However, NPCA believes H.R. 918 also would benefit from several strengthening provisions, including:
Replacement of the diligence requirement with an higher annual holding fee. This would help eliminate unnecessary surface disturbance.
Establishment of a royalty. The government should earn a return on the disposal of public assets, similar to numerous other arrangements on the public lands, including on and offshore oil and gas, other minerals, and national park concessions. Numerous states, as well as private landowners, impose a royalty and there is a demonstrated need for significant reclamation funds.
Improving surface management requirements, plans of operation (though already required within national parks), reclamation standards, and enforcement responsibilities. While the bill makes significant improvements in these areas, several additions are needed.
Approval of plans of operations should not be automatic upon completion of an updated land use plans (Section 201(b)(4)], since decisions should be made based on the specific information and conditions described in the former. Bonding requirements should be tightened in Section 201(b)(3) to reduce Secretarial discretion, and reclamation plans should be a specific and mandatory component of approved plans of operations under Section 201(b). Finally, we are concerned that "negligible disturbance" exceptions under Section 201(b)(2)(A) be produce "loophole" effects similar to the problems experienced under the "prospecting" exceptions in the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.