|MINING FOR TROUBLE|
July 16, 1999
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Restricting mining in Montana: Betty Ann Bowser reports.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Marty Johnson has lived in Montana almost all of his life, and for the last 13 years has worked as an electrician at the Golden Sunlight Mine in Whitehall. But all that may come to an end soon, because mining and Montana itself have hit hard times. Johnson knows the Golden Sunlight Mine will eventually be minded out. And in order to find another job, he could be forced to leave the state.
MARTY JOHNSON, Mine Employee: It's a constant battle to live here and make a good, decent wage. You know, you have to compete all the time. And it gets kind of frustrating.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Montana was built in large part by miners. Settlers combed these mountains for copper, gold, and silver, and some made millions. But over the years, mining got more expensive. It took more technology to get less gold. Prices fell. And when the farming and timber industries went into similar declines, Montana's economy went with it. Today, per capita income is down from 34th in the nation to 46th. And miners say some recent decisions in Washington, D.C. have contributed to the problem. One in particular puts over 400,000 acres of public land off limits to mining.
MARTY JOHNSON: That's one of the jokes amongst Montanans is when are they going to put the fence up and lock the gate? And they want to make Montana a national park, the whole state. You know, the Feds want to lock up the gates, you know, and get rid of us. And I think they are working on it.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Johnson and many other miners in Montana believe the Clinton administration's Forest Service has taken steps to effectively shut down mining in the state. In recent years, it's made a number of high-profile decisions aimed squarely at increasing conservation and decreasing industrial use on federal lands across the country. In all, the Clinton administration has withdrawn three million acres of public land, mostly from use by the mining industry. Mike Dombeck is chief of the U.S. Forest Service.
MIKE DOMBECK, Chief, US Forest Service: We support mining if it's done appropriately and in the appropriate places. Our concern is basically this: That we conduct these operations in an environmentally safe manner, that we don't put our groundwater tables, our drinking water, our lakes or streams at risk while we do this.
REBECCA WATSON: Hey, horses.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Mine industry attorney Rebecca Watson says the agency has abandoned its legal mandate to allow multiple uses of public land. And that is hurting all of Montana.
REBECCA WATSON: The reality is in the last ten years, you've seen timber production drop by 50 percent, mining patents drop by 90 percent, and recreation rise over 150 percent. There's been a demonstrable, statistically demonstrable shift from multiple use to two uses: Preservation and recreation.
MIKE DOMBECK: We need to the future generations, the long-term functioning of the landscape, of the watershed values, the fish and the wildlife values, the scenic values, the recreational opportunities. And how could you beat anything like the Rocky Mountain front?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Rocky Mountain front is exactly where the latest controversy is focused. Dombeck recently withdrew 429,000 acres of land along the front from mineral extraction, one of the largest withdrawals in recent years.
GENE SENTZ: Who can tell me what the state flower is? All right.
GENE SENTZ: Bitterroot, okay.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Gene Sentz is a fourth grade school teacher and environmentalist who's delighted with the withdrawal. Sentz lives in the tiny town of Chotau, near the front.
GENE SENTZ: I'll have to take you up here on old man of the hill sometime.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Sentz says these mountains must be protected from commercial exploitation for his daughter's future.
GENE SENTZ, School Teacher: It's the last place in the lower 48 where the grizzly comes out on the plains regularly. It's a tremendous wildlife area. Once you spend so much time in it, these mountains and valleys are like brothers and sisters. And they're worth more than all the diamonds and gold that you could pile up here in front of me.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Marty Johnson's wife, Tammy, has become so frustrated with that kind of argument that she formed an organization called Citizens United for a Realistic Environment. She lobbies lawmakers trying to convince them that it's not just miners who will be hurt if public lands are shut down from commercial use.
TAMMY JOHNSON, Mining Activist: How do we keep the doors open to our rural hospital? How on earth do we fund our schools? We are struggling like crazy just to exist. We keep saying, you know, raising our hands, and we are part of the process. We comment, we write, we show up at hearings. We do everything that we're supposed to do. But it's almost as if you don't count. You know, there's just not enough of you to matter.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Ironically, the land recently withdrawn along the Rocky Mountain front has never been considered a mineral-rich area. But there are other ways to make money from it-- by staking claims. Under the 1872 mining law, anyone can file a claim, then buy the land for about $2.50 an acre. And if the government wants to get it back, it might have to buy the land back at 1999 prices. In 1996, environmentalists like Jim Jensen became concerned when someone staked 104 claims in the area. So they asked the Forest Service to withdraw the land.
JIM JENSEN, Environmentalist: Mining companies, or individual small miners even, can go stake claims in very, very important areas, ecologically important areas, and then extort the government to buy out their claims in order to avoid the disruption that mining would cause. You see this kind of pattern beginning to develop. And I think that the chief of the Forest Service made a very wise preventative choice in withdrawing the Rocky Mountain front.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Clinton administration has tried to get the 1872 law changed, but has been unsuccessful. Dombeck says as long as there is no change in the 1872 mining law, the Forest Service will take action to protect federal land. And that troubles the Johnsons.
TAMMY JOHNSON, Mining Activist: New wealth has got to come from the ground. And eventually, I think some sanity will prevail. And I think that you'll, again, see a strong mineral industry in the United States, and in Montana. But whether Marty and I our kids can last, you know, through that, is a whole nother thing.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Environmentalist Jensen thinks he knows what the future of Montana hold.
JIM JENSEN: Scarce things come valuable, and Montana has the kind of things that are scarce worldwide-- beautiful, undisturbed landscapes, places where people can recharge their spirits. And every day that becomes more and more important, and fewer places present that opportunity. Therefore, the places that still do are more valuable. That's what Montana has going for it for the future.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Jensen believes Montana's new gold rush won't involve minerals, but will involve skiers, fishermen and others in the recreation business.