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By Santa Fe New Mexican Editorial Board
June 10, 2019

The news that an American subsidiary of an Australian company is planning to conduct mineral exploration in the Santa Fe National Forest near Terrero is setting off alarm bells among outdoors lovers and environmentalists alike.

To many, the wild lands around Pecos — with fishing, hiking, camping and hunting — are incompatible with the work of extracting minerals from the ground. Then, too, the Pecos area’s history with the mining industry, including a legacy of pollution and expensive cleanups, is hardly one to make residents comfortable with the process.

However, as Santa Fe National Forest officials point out, the federal government can do little to stop companies that want to profit from mining on public lands. Under the amended General Mining Act of 1872, companies have freedom to search for minerals. Forest officials can require companies to protect resources, but the antiquated mining act does not allow land managers to prohibit the exploration or development of mineral resources. If gold or zinc or copper is on public lands, companies have the right to search and extract.

What Comexico LLC, the American subsidiary of New World Cobalt, wants to do is explore previously identified mineral deposits in the Pecos/Las Vegas Ranger District. Comexico also has filed its exploration permit application to the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. The applications propose core drilling near Jones Hill, close to Terrero, in hopes of identifying base and precious metal deposits for mining.

Because the company’s plan states that exploration will not disturb the surface, the operation won’t even require analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act. Core drilling activities as outlined in the company’s plan of operations, however, would require some analysis under the act depending on the scope of operations and how greatly it would disturb soil, plants, water, air or wild animals. The drilling operation should affect about 2.2 acres, according to the company’s public notice. Despite that public notice, the public has little say in what happens next.

The 1872 act needs to be rewritten so that local communities and stakeholders have more say about what happens in their backyards — after all, it was President Ulysses Grant who signed the first piece of legislation regulating hard rock mining. It’s time for an update.

The Hardrock Leasing and Reclamation Act of 2019 was introduced last month to reform the 1872 law, including the introduction of a modern leasing system. Sen. Tom Udall is a sponsor of the bill in the Senate, and U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona has introduced the House bill.

Among other things, the new legislation would allow land managers to weigh other uses for public lands — hard rock mining would not be the default best use, but recreation, hunting, fishing and conservation could be considered. The legislation would start a “polluters pay” dedicated fund to clean up abandoned hard rock mines on public lands, provide better protection for national monuments, parks, roadless areas and other natural heritage sites and, importantly, make sure the U.S. Treasury is better compensated for minerals taken from public lands. Right now, oil and coal companies pay royalties, but hard rock mining companies use public lands for free.

The old mining law makes it easy for foreign companies to extract resources, take their profits and leave U.S. taxpayers holding the bag. Right now, there’s little way to stop exploration and drilling in the Santa Fe National Forest — even if mining is not the best use of the area. For that to change, Congress must pass legislation that protects both our public lands and our pocketbooks.

This article originally appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican.