Moab attracts plenty of tourists to Arches and Canyonlands national parks and is a mecca for mountain bikers. But Moab Mayor Tom Stocks says they just don't help the economy like uranium mining did - and he's been hoping for its return.
"But if the Rahall bill (for Democratic mining reform) passes Congress, it's doubtful any mining will ever return," he said Monday at a press conference called by mining-town mayors throughout the West.Monticello Mayor Jack N. Young agreed that expensive reforms would put the boom-bust-boom cycle of uranium mining into an eternal bust - and also chase offshore most miners seeking gold, silver and copper. "It would be absolutely devastating for us."
Such lobbying by mining-town mayors on Capitol Hill is the latest in a debate about whether mining reform pushed by the Clinton administration and congressional Democratic leaders will make the West go bust as miners claim or make it boom with new cleanup jobs and tourism as environmentalists claim.
Both sides even released dueling studies within hours of each other earlier this month making opposite claims about proposals to place an 8 percent tax on gross sales from hard-rock mining and stop such practices as selling mining lands for as little as $2.50 an acre.
Stocks watched Moab lose mining and find new tourism - and he says preserving mining is much better for the local economy.
"We called ourselves the uranium capital of the world. It provided us with a high standard of living," he said. "But world market prices closed most of the uranium mining down in the early 1980s. About 65 percent of the population moved out of Moab. I had to lay off half the city employees."
He said the city came back somewhat with efforts to attract more tourists to national parks and to bring mountain bikers to the area. "While we're proud of the tourism base, it cannot provide the standard of living that mining did. Moab needs the jobs that mining will create."
He adds, "It could come back. We still have plenty of low-grade uranium ore throughout the area. It will never come back if they pass this bill."
James Polinghorne, mayor of Elko, Nev., which also has a strong tourism trade from its casinos, said Elko was recently named the best small town in America because of the major economic boon of gold mining there. He said reformers seek to "make Elko a ghost town."
University of Nevada-Reno professor John L. Dobra - who wrote the pro-mining study on the effects of reform in Nevada - has complained that other studies look at the average effect of reform nationwide and not on small towns like Moab and Monticello.
"It is a different matter to make the assumption that, for example, a new job for a federal administrator (to oversee new mining cleanup) is equivalent to the job of a Utah or Idaho or Nevada truck driver," his study said.
But the author of the pro-reform study - Montana economist Michael Power - said, "Anyone who believes that mining-law reform will damage the economy of the West is looking at the region through a rear-view mirror."
Power added, "The economy in the West has grown rapidly for the last 20 years because of the quality of life there, even though the mining industry has been cutting jobs all the time."
The House is expected to act soon on proposed reform of the 1872 mining act proposed by Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., which includes the new 8 percent tax on gross sales.
The Senate has already passed a more miner-friendly version of reform sponsored by Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, which would impose only a 2 percent tax on net profits, not gross sales. Rep. Bill Orton, D-Utah, has introduced a similar bill.