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White Mountains review justified: Congress created the mining option; BLM can’t ignore it

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Posted: Sunday, March 31, 2013 12:00 am

Community perspective

I read with interest Darcie Warden’s recent Community Perspective (March 24) on possible mineral leasing in the White Mountains National Recreation Area. Since the State commission I work for was partly responsible for the Bureau of Land Management’s decision to prepare a supplement to the Proposed Eastern Interior Resource Management Plan to consider hardrock mineral leasing in the recreation area, I wanted to share a few facts that were overlooked in her column.  

As the article stated, the White Mountains National Recreation Area was created in 1980 by section 403 of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. Originally, the White Mountains NRA was to be managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of the national wildlife refuge system. But, with BLM-managed trails and cabins in the area, along with existing mining claims, active mining operations and known mineral deposits, and the agency’s multiple-use mandate, Congress kept the area under BLM management. 

It’s only fair to point out that many of the trails and access points leading into the White Mountains, including the Nome Creek Road, were originally created by the same mining activity that Ms. Warden decries as a “mistake.” 

ANILCA Section 1312, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act and other applicable law provide guidance on how the White Mountains area is to be administered. The article, however, included only part of that guidance:  “to provide for public outdoor recreation use and enjoyment and for the conservation of the scenic, scientific, historic, fish and wildlife and other values contributing to public enjoyment of such area.”   

But Section 1312(a) continues:  “Except as otherwise provided in this Act, the Secretary shall administer the recreation area in a manner that will best provide for (1) public outdoor recreation benefits; (2) conservation of scenic, scientific, historic, fish and wildlife and other values contributing to public enjoyment; and (3) such management, utilization, and disposal of natural resources and the continuation of such existing uses and developments as will promote, or are compatible with, or do not significantly impair public recreation and conservation of the scenic, scientific, historic, fish and wildlife, or other values contributing to public enjoyment. In administering the recreation area, the Secretary may utilize such statutory authorities available to him for the conservation and management of natural resources as he deems appropriate for recreation and preservation purposes and for resource development compatible therewith.” (emphasis added)  

While withdrawing the recreation area from state selection and from the federal mining laws, subject to valid existing rights, ANILCA 1312(b) also authorized the secretary to permit the removal of both leasable and non-leasable minerals within the area under various mineral leasing laws and “under such reasonable regulations as he deems appropriate.” Leasing can be permitted if the secretary finds that it would not have “significant adverse effects on the administration of the recreation areas. (sic)”  

The purpose of the supplement to the proposed Eastern Interior plan is to determine what effects hardrock mineral leasing, if permitted, would have on the area. The Record of Decision for the 1986 White Mountains area plan recommended allowing mineral leasing in about 44 percent of  the area. (By contrast, the current proposed alternative would allow leasing in some 16 percent of the area.) In order for any leasing to proceed after the 1986 decision, however, regulations had to be adopted and the secretary had to prepare a public land order  to revoke the ANILCA withdrawal. Regulations were adopted in 1986, but no land order was prepared. Consequently, the area remains withdrawn, no leases were issued and all claims have lapsed.   

Although the 1986 plan was not fully implemented, the ANILCA provisions and the regulations authorizing mineral leasing remain in place and the issue must be addressed in the current planning process.  Just as the BLM is required under its planning regulations and National Environmental Policy Act guidelines to develop and analyze a range of alternatives for managing outdoor recreation and for the conservation of the other values of the area, the agency must also examine the possibility of mineral leasing in at least one alternative. Excluding mineral leasing from the analysis would result in an incomplete plan and NEPA document that likely would be successfully challenged. It was both appropriate and necessary for BLM to prepare the hardrock mineral leasing supplement, and the decision to do so was not arbitrary.  

Whether mineral leasing will ever be permitted in the White Mountains area will be decided by the BLM and the secretary of the interior, with input from the public.  In making that decision, all interests will best be served by thorough consideration of all the facts.    

Stan Leaphart, of Fairbanks, is the executive director of the 12-member Citizens’ Advisory Commission on Federal Areas, which monitors federal land management actions and assists Alaskans affected by them. The commission is an agency of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.  Its website is: http://dnr.alaska.gov/commis/cacfa/.

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