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Group calls for updated mining laws

Citing concern that high gold prices could spur increases in commercial mining in Oregon, a diverse group of Oregonians on Thursday called for reforming the 1872 Mining Act.

"My concern is that with gold prices reaching $956 an ounce, there will be an economic incentive to rework the old mines in Jackson County," observed Dr. Dave Gilmour, a member of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners.

"Reworking those mines could put us at some risk," he added.

The problem, explained Gilmour, who previously served as the county's health officer for 15 years, is the naturally occurring arsenic, mercury and other toxins that are released by large-scale hard-rock mining.

Gold was first found locally on Jackson Creek in 1852, and there are countless old mines scattered across the county.

Noting that his concern is for commercial, not recreational, mining, Gilmour said any heavy metal pollution in the Rogue River would affect cities such as Medford, which depend on the river for millions of gallons of drinking water during the summer. Gold Hill and Grants Pass also withdraw river water for domestic use, he said.

"Heavy metal could have dire effects if it got into our drinking water," he said.

The issue isn't about stopping all mining, but improving the law to make it reflect today's reality, said Eagle Point area resident Mike Beagle, the Oregon/Washington coordinator for Trout Unlimited.

"Mining is a legitimate use of public lands, but there are few laws more in need of an overhaul than the 1872 mining law," he said. "Under the 1872 law, mining takes precedence over all other public land uses, including hunting and fishing."

The law also requires the secretary of the interior to sell public land to mining companies, often foreign-owned, for as little as $2.50 per acre, he said. Under the law, mining firms pay no royalties for minerals extracted from hard-rock mines.

"It's estimated that since the law was enacted, the U.S. government has given away more than $245 billion of minerals through royalty-free mining and patenting," he added.

However, Galice area resident Geoff Garcia, a geologist who has been mining for decades in Southern Oregon, disagreed with the notion that the 1872 law needs to be changed.

"It has worked well for years the way it is," he said in a phone conversation with the Mail Tribune. "A lot of heavy metal has been removed from the environment and put into useful form under that law.

"And a great deal of money has been spent looking for gold, copper, lead and zinc — that helps our economy," he added. "These heavy metals fuel modern civilization."

The point, he said, is that much of what is used in today's society came from a mine.

"Anybody that drives on asphalt — that road came out of a mine," he said, adding, "If sportsmen don't like it, maybe they ought to quit using rifles."

Beagle reiterated that those supporting changes in the law aren't opposed to all mining.

"But we are saying that if you extract it, you pay a royalty and you don't get to own the land afterwards," he said.

He and others urged support for the Hardrock Mining Reform and Restoration Act approved overwhelmingly last November by the House of Representatives. They called for the Senate to take up a bill that will provide sensible reform.

They urged support for a new mining law that would recover a fair royalty from all minerals taken from public lands; end mining's priority status on public lands; and give discretion to public land managers to permit mining where appropriate. They said reforms should also include "good Samaritan" reclamation incentives, common-sense liability relief, and prohibit the patenting or sale of public lands.

Among those pushing for reforming the 1872 law is Little Applegate River rancher Peter Salant.

"Reform of this antiquated law will be good for the land, good for clean water and good for the taxpaying public," he said.

Port Orford area resident Jim Rogers, a professional forester for more than four decades, agreed.

"I've seen the devastation that hard rock mining can do to our precious natural resources," he said. "It is high time we reform the 1872 Mining Act and work on restoring the balance that has been lost on much of our public lands throughout the West."

Expanded mining threatens the loss of public lands to those who like to hunt and fish, said Bend resident Kelly Smith, a longtime hunter and a board member with Back Country Hunters and Anglers.

"It could also create all kinds of damage to wildlife habitat," he said.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.