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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Some fear that we will saddle our children with trillions of dollars in federal debt. That would be too bad, but it would be a minor inconvenience compared to what our forefathers cursed us with: the 1866 federal law known as R.S. 2477. Like other such gifts—including the 1872 Mining Law—R.S. 2477 lays a heavy, destructive, expensive hand on the present.

The statute’s 19 words said that anyone could build a public “highway” across the West’s public land. That highway could not be extinguished by the later creation of a homestead, a national park or even a wilderness.

R.S. 2477 was repealed in 1976, but its highways—sometimes nothing more than rough trails made by cowboys herding cattle—are still being fought over in the West. That is especially true in Utah, where the state has launched 30 federal lawsuits to establish 36,000 miles of mechanized rights of way through existing wilderness, national parks and monuments, and wilderness study areas.

Into this expensive, litigious mess bravely comes the young historian Jedediah S. Rogers. With Roads in the Wilderness: Conflict in Canyon Country, Rogers attempts to connect two warring ways of life. He asks us to look at roads not only as physical structures, but as symbols of culture and history. In Rogers’ telling, the Mormons of southern Utah regard the primitive roads their ancestors pioneered as comparable to the naves of medieval cathedrals. To interfere with the public’s ability to travel them amounts to sacrilege. But to those who favor wilderness, the sacrilege is motorized travel through red-rock canyons and riparian areas.

Rogers humanizes the conflict over wilderness by portraying some of the people most involved. He is sympathetic both toward Edward Abbey, author of Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang, and toward nemesis, uranium miner and Lake Powell resort developer Calvin Black, immortalized by Abbey as the character “Bishop Love.”

Abbey hated roads—the better the road, the more he hated it—and the reservoir he called Lake Foul. Black appreciated Lake Powell because it also served as a highway, and so loved roads, writes Rogers, that he assumed the 1960s slogan “Black Is Beautiful” referred to pavement.

Given the area’s bitter history—which includes the Grand County commissioners repeatedly, and feloniously, sending bulldozers into Moab’s Negro Bill Canyon to “refresh” the disappearing road—what could bring the two sides to the table now?

Partly, it is the passing of generations; both Black and Abbey are gone, for example. And partly it is exhaustion from decades of expensive struggle. But it may also be fear of the future: Utah could win its R.S. 2477 cases, or President Barack Obama might unleash the 1906 Antiquities Act, as President Clinton did at Grand Staircase-Escalante, and create de facto wilderness. Or both events might happen, further complicating what is already a mess.

Rogers’ book is both perfectly timed and a sign of the times, appearing as Utah Congressman Rob Bishop seems to be progressing toward a compromise solution in Utah, with some public land being protected, and some now-protected land being opened to development.

Although the book is well-timed, it isn’t always well-written, and it lacks clear maps to illustrate chapters about the road wars in places like Arch Canyon and the Book Cliffs.

While Rogers lacks the partisan passion of an Abbey or Black, he has passions appropriate to this time: for compromise and the merging of interests. He believes that if the two sides were to bend a little, each would win more than they could by defeating the other in Congress or the White House or the courts.

He urges environmentalists to see desert homesteads, mine shafts, abandoned orchards and even roads as part of a landscape shaped by humans, but still dominated by nature. He quotes environmental historian Bill Cronon, who has written that the exclusion of man’s works from nature is dehumanizing.

And he asks southern Utah’s Mormon residents to acknowledge that the heroic pioneer days, when wagon trains were lowered to the Colorado River by rope down the Hole in the Rock notch, are over. We have blasted an interstate highway through the San Rafael Swell and turned parts of the Colorado, San Juan and Escalante rivers into ponds. Progress now, Rogers argues, is not demonstrated by how much more nature we can bulldoze, but by how much we can refrain from conquering: “In a country—a world—that is increasingly developed one acre at a time, we need these places to keep us rooted. The (Colorado Plateau) region is one of the few places where large tracts of wildlands exist.”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Roads in the Wilderness: Conflict in Canyon Country

By Jedediah S. Rogers

University of Utah

250 pages, $39.95 (hardcover), $24.95 (paperback)

Published in Literature

Since 1872, mining interests have made billions of dollars by removing and selling valuable minerals from our public lands without having to pay a cent to the American taxpayer. This is one of the biggest budget loopholes of the modern economy, and it needs to change—especially now—as Congress tries to address the deficit and balance budgets.

Blame this bizarre omission of royalties on the 1872 Mining Law, which encouraged Westward expansion by allowing prospectors to stake claims on public lands and freely remove “hardrock” minerals like gold, silver, copper and uranium. This saloon-era handout—established more than 140 years ago—continues unchanged to this day. Mining companies still receive these precious metals and minerals for free.

Today, some of the world’s biggest companies make a mint by mining our metals, selling them to the highest bidder, keeping all the profits and often sticking taxpayers with a costly cleanup bill. We’re left with a legacy of abandoned and contaminated mines on public lands that leak into streams and aquifers—lands that should be managed for the benefit of the American people.

Even as these giveaways continue, funding for national parks and other public facilities keep getting tighter. Employees’ hours are being reduced; cleanup crews are scarce; and trails are going untended and falling into ruin. Even a small royalty could rejuvenate our public-lands system, help clean up abandoned mines and mine waste, and put people back to work. Why should companies get a free ride while the national budget is slashed and parks close for lack of funds? With prices for gold, silver and other minerals at near-record highs, requiring companies to pay a royalty for public resources is simply good policy.

In 2011, we requested a Government Accountability Office investigation of this issue. The results, published this past November, were striking: The GAO found that we have no estimate at all of the value of the hardrock resources extracted from federal property. Not only are we giving public resources away for free; we don’t even know what’s being taken or the value of what we’re giving away.

According to a 2012 Bureau of Land Management report, in California alone, there are 20,200 mining claims, 215,000 ounces of gold, and 35,000 ounces of silver produced annually on BLM land.

The Department of the Interior, using estimates and partial information, put a ballpark figure of $6.4 billion on the value of hardrock minerals extracted from federal land in 2011. If taxpayers received an 8 percent royalty on $6.4 billion, that would mean more than $500 million a year we could put back into managing our public lands and reducing our national debt.

For decades, Congress has tried to rally sufficient support for hardrock mining law reform. Disputes about what royalty rate to charge, how to calculate company profits, and what benefits would go to local mining communities have managed to stall decades of reform efforts. While full reform has not been successful so far, progress has been made.

In the 1990s, both the House and Senate implemented a moratorium on the patenting of federal land for hardrock mineral development. As recently as 2008, the House passed a measure that would have protected special landscapes and charged a royalty of up to 8 percent. As co-sponsors of this legislation, we were frustrated to see the bill die in the Senate.

Now more than ever, the case for reform is clear, and we appreciate the support we’ve received from President Obama’s administration. As our nation works to address the deficit in the months ahead, we can no longer allow federal giveaways of our natural resources to continue without any compensation to the taxpayers who own those resources. The president proposed hardrock mining reform measures in each of his past two budgets, and we hope to see this repeated in his fiscal year 2014 request due this month.

But the only way mining reform will happen is if the public becomes aware of its importance. Nothing in Congress happens in a vacuum. That’s why we’re highlighting this issue now, before budget negotiations get too intense.

In 1872, Congress made national expansion the country’s top priority, and we spent the next century growing westward. That phase of American history ended a long time ago, but our mining law never caught up to the realities of today. It is long overdue for Congress and the administration to act––to finally demand, and get, a fair price for the public’s hardrock minerals.

The writers are contributors to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. Arizona Democratic Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva is the ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulations; Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico sits on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

Published in Community Voices