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The Jemez River, which cuts through northern New Mexico, should be protected as a wild and scenic river, according to legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives.

But now, before the protective legislation has been scheduled to be heard by the Senate, a claimant has filed an application for thousands of acres of mining rights along the river.The application - which proposes ripping up the river banks to mine pumice stones in order to produce stone washed jeans - is just an extreme example of the kind of environmental damage that continues to occur on public lands in the West under the loopholes contained in the outdated Mining Law of 1872.

Why should Utahns care?

Because thousands of acres of federal lands in Utah are vulnerable to the same kind of strip mining that could threaten to contaminate our groundwater or destroy our natural wildlife habitat.

The law as it now stands encourages speculators to explore public lands looking for minerals. If successful - whether they are looking for oil, coal, phosphates or hard rock minerals such as uranium, gold, silver, lead or copper - mineral rights can be had for $2.50 an acre. This sale is made without any consideration of protecting the land's watershed, wildlife habitat or recreation uses. In addition, claimants are under no legal obligation to restore the land to its previous condition.

The biggest problem is in the patenting provision of the law. Claimants apply for mining rights to the property but aren't legally blocked from using it for other purposes. In essence, that means valuable land, much of it environmentally critical, is being sold for just $2.50 an acre.

Phil Hocker, president of the non-profit Mineral Policy Center in Washington D.C., terms it "the law with no brain, a national joke," because it has no provision for intelligent decision making concerning the country's precious natural resources. "This is not an old problem in that whatever bad is going to happen already has. The industry is expanding rapidly right now."

And, Hocker warns, that expansion is causing environmental scarring that we don't necessarily have the technology to fix. "In the long run we're just chewing up the land for the future."

The law needs to be changed. By all means, let's keep looking for new sources of minerals and fuels. But once these resources are discovered on public lands, a case by case look at the land's environmental sensitivity needs to be conducted before mining rights are even considered. Next, if it's determined that the environment can be protected, mining rights should be leased for at least fair market value. That's in 1989 terms, not the $2.50 land value of the 1872 law.

And miners should also pay some kind of royalty for the right to make profit off their public lands claims.