FAIRBANKS — Could the White Mountains National Recreation Area become a mining district? The Bureau of Land Management is considering a management alternative that could make this a reality. On March 5, I attended BLM’s public meeting at the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center to listen and voice my concerns about potential mining in the White Mountains NRA. I wasn’t the only one.
More than 60 people attended the meeting, with more than half providing comments — nearly every seat was taken, and folks were standing in the back of the room. People spoke with overwhelming passion about the White Mountains and asked BLM not to consider mining in an area that we all love and use year-round. The evening was inspiring. Every person who testified reminded me of how fundamentally important it is to have wild places to go to, to make memories in, and to allow our minds, bodies and souls to rejuvenate in the great outdoors.
It wasn’t by accident that the White Mountains was designated as a National Recreational Area. This 1 million-acre area is recognized nationally for its world-renowned winter trails system, public use cabins, training grounds for dog mushers, berry picking opportunities, and natural beauty such as the Beaver Creek Wild and Scenic River that winds through the region. All of these recreational gems are just up the highway from Fairbanks. Originally, the White Mountains was established by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act to “provide for public outdoor recreation use and enjoyment and for the conservation of scenic, scientific, historic, fish and wildlife, and other values contributing to public enjoyment of such area.” I commend BLM for managing the White Mountains NRA in a way consistent with its identified values and purposes.
Unfortunately, these good land management practices could change.
At the request of the state of Alaska, and to the surprise of many, BLM is evaluating the possibility of opening the White Mountains NRA to a hard-rock mineral leasing program. The leasing program would allow mineral exploration and development for gold and rare earth elements (REEs) in 160,000 acres of the recreation area. Traces of four REEs were identified in granite at the headwaters of Roy Creek, just north of the Richard’s public use cabin, and leases for gold would become available along many of the tributaries feeding into the Beaver Creek Wild and Scenic River.
How rare are REEs, really? I spoke with Earthworks, a group committed to working with communities to ensure responsible mining, about REE economics and environmental impacts. First, the name “rare earth elements” is really a misnomer because these elements are not that rare. They are quite abundant but not found in concentrated and economically exploitable forms. There is only one REE mine in the United States, the Mountain Pass mine in California. They ran into some trouble with contaminated ground water and are now remediating and upgrading site facilities. Photos of Mountain Pass depict open pits, separation facilities, paste tailings and storage facilities, a crushing facility and water treatment facilities that will be there forever.
In Alaska, we are quite familiar with gold. State lands around the White Mountains are actively being mined for gold with either a suction dredge or with the use of heavy equipment, known as mechanized mining. Both of these methods are damaging to rivers, drinking water and scenic landscapes, which we have already been witness to in Beaver Creek and Birch Creek. These rivers are only now starting to show recovery from mining activity begun in the early 1900s and continuing all the way through the 1980s. Let’s not make the same mistake again.
The White Mountains NRA is unique in that it is both accessible and affordable to the public. This is a recreation area, not a mining district. Rarely do we get the opportunity to voice our opinions to BLM about how they will manage the White Mountains.
Decisions BLM makes now will determine the fate of the White Mountains NRA in the future. Our land needs our voice to protect a national treasure in our backyard: the White Mountains National Recreation Area.
Darcie Warden is BLM lands outreach coordinator for the Alaska Wilderness League.