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Since the 19th century, metals mining has been the untouchable darling of the federal government.

It enjoys such favoritism and freedom from regulation that the hundreds of thousands of new mining claims staked on public lands in the West in recent years have the potential to do irreparable damage. Even lands close to national parks and monuments are threatened by the digging, poisoning and trampling that accompany the search for gold, copper and uranium.

Faced with a modern "land rush" brought on by higher prices for these precious metals, Congress should reform the antiquated mining law that governs this industry - now. If it does not act, Americans will continue to lose not only royalties but the use of millions of acres of public lands for recreation and the beauty, solitude, clean air and cultural treasures these lands provide.

In 2001 the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that 40 percent of Western watersheds are affected by mining pollution. Some 1,053 new uranium claims are within five miles of Arches, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef national parks.

Incredibly, considering its potential for damage, the metals-mining industry pays no royalties to the American people, as do oil and gas companies. And taxpayers too often bear the cost of cleaning up abandoned mines. Those costs will rise as mining claims proliferate.

Mining claims on all Western federal lands jumped 80 percent in the past 4 1/2 years, and in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming, uranium mining claims increased 750 percent between 2004 and 2006. The rate of increase is highest in Utah and Colorado.

Mining is largely unfettered because the federal Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service are enabled in their current development zeal by the General Mining Act of 1872. This law echoes a bygone era when exploitation of then-vast natural resources was the top priority of an expanding nation.

The law states, "All valuable mineral deposits in lands belonging to the United States, both surveyed and unsurveyed, are hereby declared to be free and open to exploration and purchase, and the lands in which they are found to occupation and purchase, by citizens of the United States and those who have declared their intention to become such."

Based on that 135-year-old statute, mining has enjoyed a free hand. It's high time for Congress to rein it in.