This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
The Obama administration is at it again. The president's musclebound regulators in Washington are once more attempting to usurp states' authority and deny local economies the means to grow, boost employment or raise revenue.
The latest example comes as no surprise to those of us in the West. The Department of the Interior has proposed to withdraw at least 10 million acres of federal land from mining activity, an important source of high-wage jobs and a vital contributor to our manufacturing economy. And all to replace highly effective state conservation plans with a less-effective federal plan for a bird that doesn't need federal protection and isn't in danger of extinction.
Last month, the Secretary of the Interior yielded to western governors, state conservationists and industry and chose not to list the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act. Governors had offered a compelling argument: Their states, in partnership with industry and conservationists, had already taken voluntary efforts to preserve sage grouse habitat. According to the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, the bird's population has increased 63 percent since 2013. But what the administration gives, it also takes away. In exchange for not listing the bird, the secretary decided with no congressional consultation to deny mining access to a vast tract of land that holds valuable minerals needed by our economy.
This decision won't surprise anyone familiar with the administration's regulatory appetite and frequent attempts to undermine state authority. But the mineral withdrawal, the largest in American history, is unnecessary and reckless all the same.
It's unnecessary because the department's own environmental analysis concluded that mineral exploration and development posed minimal impact, if any, on the bird's habitat. In fact, federal analysis showed that all developmental activities – ranching, oil and gas development, mining – affected only 7 percent of the bird's ecosystem. Instead, wildfires and invasive vegetation present the biggest threat. So why is an economic activity important to the economy of the rural West (as well as the nation's manufacturing economy) being targeted for regulatory extinction?
Federal land in the West holds the vast majority of the nation's mineral endowment. From copper and gold, to nickel and zinc, base and precious metals are mostly found in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico. With half the nation's mineral wealth already off-limits or under restrictions, removing 10 million additional acres for a single species will doubtless have a significant impact on our ability to furnish manufacturers with vital raw materials.
The U.S. is already entirely import-dependent for 19 key mineral resources and more than 50 percent import-reliant for another 24 needed to build everything from wind turbines to medical technology. Cutting this deeply into mining activity will also deprive local and federal taxpayers of a sizable portion of the $46 billion in revenues generated by domestic mining.
Did anyone in the department consider the costs of such action for so little benefit?
The process used for determining what acreage to withdraw was based on a wholly arbitrary scheme featuring "sage grouse focal areas" devised after the public comment period closed. An analysis of the habitat map by the state of Nevada suggests the focal area scheme will result in severe impacts to mining. Almost 90,000 mining claims more than half of Nevada's total would be impacted by the habitat plan. Mining in Idaho to Utah is likely to face similar penalties.
Most all of us in the West appreciate our natural heritage and support responsible actions to conserve it. We also appreciate the value of our natural resources and rely on them to support families, schools, roads, and hospitals. But the Obama administration's sage grouse plan is not consistent with these values. It is economically irresponsible and environmentally unnecessary. The West deserves better from Washington.
Mark Compton is president of the Utah Mining Association.