By BRAD JONES
GPAA Managing Editor
Prospecting and mining groups have united to fight against the creation of three national monuments in Southern California.
After two failed attempts to get legislation passed in the Senate, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., made a third pitch for her bill, known as S. 414, at a public meeting on Oct. 13 held at Whitewater Preserve near Palm Springs, Calif.
The event, described in news reports as having a pep-rally-like atmosphere, was hosted on land owned by The Wildlands Conservancy, a group that supports S. 414. The bill aims to designate more than a million acres of public lands as national monuments — Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow and Castle Mountains:
• The proposed Mojave Trails National Monument would encompass 942,000 acres between Mojave National Preserve and the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps base.
• The proposed Sand to Snow National Monument would cover 135,000 acres of land from the desert floor in Coachella Valley in Riverside County to the peak of Mount San Gorgonio in San Bernardino County. It includes 25 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail and the headwaters of the Santa Ana and Whitewater rivers.
• The proposed Castle Mountains National Monument would add about 21,000 acres to the eastern Mojave National Preserve. The land was an active gold mine until 2001. It includes the historic mining town of Hart and the remaining portion of the 340-mile Lanfair Valley watershed that is not part of Mojave National Preserve.
Feinstein was met by friends and foes as about 70 miners, including members of Public Lands for the People, the American Mining Rights Association, Minerals and Mining Advisory Council, Gold Prospectors Association of America and local prospecting clubs, showed up to protest what they are calling a million-acre land grab.
But, Feinsten told the raucous crowd that if she can’t get her bill passed through Congress, she will push President Barrack Obama to use his presidential authority under the Antiquities Act to declare the national monuments by executive order before the end of his second term.
“This legislation protects additional land and helps manage desert resources by carefully balancing conservation, recreation and renewable energy,” Feinstein said. “It provides for off-road vehicle recreation, and its cornerstone is the establishment of the Mojave Trails and Sand to Snow national monuments. Unfortunately, despite the support of more than 140 organizations, the two counties affected, business owners, environmental groups, off-road vehicle associations, energy companies, public utilities and others, it still has to move in the Senate. Because of this very long delay many people, including former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, began coming to me and suggesting we consider executive action by the president as a way to establish the monuments.”
Miners protest land grab
PLP President Walt Wegner, who could not attend the meeting, said the PLP opposes any and all national monument designations on public lands.
“I don’t know the exact acreage of Feinstein’s bill, but I do know that it’s one acre more than we will ever accept,” Wegner said. “Public Lands for the People will not tolerate even one acre being taken out of the public domain and put into monument status. Enough is enough!”
Over the past 25 years since PLP was founded, too much land has been lost already, said Wegner, explaining that prospecting and mining on public lands is a congressionally granted right under the Mining Law of 1872, and that PLP’s mandate is to defend the public’s right to access these lands, not only for prospecting and mining, but for hunting, fishing, off-roading and other outdoors pursuits.
The land grabs have only been accelerated under the Obama Administration. Last year, for example Obama declared by executive order more than 350,000 acres in Southern California as the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument.
“When it comes to the public domain, the government does not hold title to this land,” Wegner said. “The Bureau of Land Management doesn’t hold title; Dianne Feinstein doesn’t hold title; the U.S. Forest Service doesn’t hold title. The title is held in trust for the people of the United States. We own that land. It’s ours.”
But, when land is taken out of the public domain and designated as a national monument, the ownership of the land is taken away from the people and given to the federal government, he said.
“They own it. It’s no longer ours and we have no right to access it,” Wegner said.
While environmentalist groups contend that public lands represent wildlife and valuable cultural and natural resources that need to be protected, they always downplay the mineral wealth,” Wegner said.
“It’s what our economy, our health and all our lives depend on,” he said. “And, when a federal government takes all of that ... we are no longer a free people. The people don’t have ownership of our country at all anymore ... It has become like Venezuela where the government has come in and taken over all resources. And, when you control all the resources, you control all the people.”
Wegner also fears the federal government may be setting aside public lands to use as collateral against trillions of dollars in foreign debt to China and other nations.
Paul Cook’s bill
Adding even more confusion to the mix is a competing Republican bill that Rep. Paul Cook, R-Apple Valley, served up to the House of Representatives in October. Cook’s bill, the “California Minerals, Off-Road Recreation and Conservation Act,” has left a bad aftertaste with miners.
Cook met with mining rights advocates in Kern County last year in the hopes of finding some common ground, and he appeared sympathetic to the plight of miners. He showed up at last year’s Oktoberfest event at Sleepy Bear Mine near Randsburg, Calif., and mingled with prospectors, including PLP and the newly formed Minerals and Mining Advisory Council board members.
A year later, it’s now clear that Cook has abandoned MMAC’s proposed bill “Minerals and Mining Reform Act — A Clear Path Respecting Mining Rights,” and has instead chosen to author his own bill, CMORCA, or HR 3668.
MMAC’s draft legislation essentially calls for the reactivation of already established Mining Districts on public lands in the western United States. The bill is available on the PLP and MMAC websites.
Although Cook did not attend the meeting at Whitewater Preserve, his Chief of Staff John Sobel was there to pitch the bill.
PLP, AMRA oppose HR 3668
Both PLP and AMRA have rejected Cook’s bill which supports the proposed Sand to Snow and Castle Mountains
national monuments but allows mining in 10 percent of a 965,000-acre proposed Mojave Trails Special Management Area, instead of Feinstein’s Mojave Trails National Monument.
Matt Knox, district director for Cook, suggested that even if Congress did pass the MMAC bill, that it is likely President Barack Obama would veto it.
“All along, our goal has always been to put together a bill that has the potential to be signed into law,” Knox said. “You know, we still have to keep in mind we are dealing with a Democrat administration and a Democrat president, and ... the bill that the Minerals and Mining Advisory Council put together—I mean with all due respect to their position and we do understand where they are coming from — there is no way in hell a Democrat president is ever going to sign something like that into law, so what’s the next best alternative?”
Knox suggested that miners should support HR 3668 because it allows for 96,500 “floating acres” that could be open to “permitted mining projects” at any given time within his proposed Mojave Trails Special Management Area.
“We’re hearing a lot of uproar from the mining community over the fact that a national monument wouldn’t allow for future new mining claims,” he said.
Knox is convinced that if no compromise is reached, Obama will grant Feinstein’s wish and declare the national monuments by executive order under the Antiquities Act, which would be worse than congressional approval of Cook’s bill.
“Obama is going to declare it. You are going to hear something before the end of his presidency. That’s been made abundantly clear to us ... If that happens and you have national monuments, you guys are going to be — pardon my French — [expletive] out of luck.”
And, while HR 3668 may sound better than Feinstein’s land grab, it still means losing 90 percent of the land to prospecting and mining.
And, even though Knox said it is a better deal for “permitted mining projects,” most prospecting and mining groups say it only protects larger mines and does not protect the right to access and prospect for gold and other minerals. They remain adamantly opposed to Cook’s bill, which includes wilderness areas and wild, scenic and recreational rivers among other restrictive land use designations.
AMRA President Shannon Poe said declaring a national monument by executive order is an abuse of presidential power and opposes all national monuments.
“We don’t support the Cook bill at all. I think conceding any more of our public lands under this disguise they call national monuments is just another land grab. We all know that,” Poe said.
And, as far as Feinstein’s call for an executive order from Obama to create national monuments, AMRA is vehemently opposed, he said.
“You have to go back to what executive orders and executive actions were intended to do. It was supposed to be for emergencies when Congress was not in session. What it has morphed into is more of a dictatorial move on the president’s part to just force his will,” Poe said. “This is not the will of the people; this is the will of a handful of people — the Feinsteins of the world that are being driven by special interests”
Poe called on all outdoor user groups to not only oppose both Feinstein and Cook’s bills but to speak out against all land grabs.
“We have tyranny, and that is what we are witnessing now.” Poe said. “You can’t just take millions and millions of acres and then just make ’em off limits to the public who owns them, and yet that is exactly what they’re doing.”
The MMAC bill
Meanwhile, Wegner said PLP would rather see the MMAC bill passed by the House and Senate and be vetoed by Obama than agree to a so-called compromise that would be devastating to miners and other outdoor user groups.
“Absolutely, we are taking a stance against his bill. We do not support it and we will fight this bill every inch of the way,” Wegner said. “No way in the world will we accept a bill that takes one acre of public domain and puts it into monument status, or wilderness status or any other status they want to call it where the title of ownership goes to the federal government.”
Wegner said he hasn’t slammed the door on dialogue with Cook, but said the congressman needs to act quickly if he hopes to save face with the small-scale mining community.
“We are willing to give him one more chance to come back into the fold ... but he’s a politician and I’m not very optimistic,” he said.
Bad for business
Jim Jeffrey, who owns American Prospector Treasure Seeker, a family-run prospecting store in Temecula, Calif., rallied miners to attend the meeting and protest Feinstein’s backdoor attempt to restrict mining.
Jeffrey said impending mining restrictions expected at the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument have already hurt his business and he expects an even worse decline in small-scale mining equipment sales with a loss of another million or more acres of public lands. Cook’s bill may support big mining companies but has snubbed the small-scale miners, Jeffrey said.
“It’s for the big miner, not the little guy,” he said.
Brad Jones is the Managing Editor/Communications Director for the Gold Prospectors Association of America and the Lost Dutchman’s Mining Association. He can be reached at bjones@gold prospectors.org
SUPPORT MINING RIGHTS
• Oppose U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s bill, S. 414
• Oppose Feinsten’s push to persuade President Barack Obama to designate national monuments by executive order under the Antiquities Act.
• Oppose U.S. Rep. Paul Cook’s bill HR 3668
• Support PLP: www.PublicLandsForThePeople.org
(Article as featured in the December ’15/January ’16 edition of the Pick & Shovel Gazette. To subscribe, go to www.goldprospectors.org/join)