Most the abandoned mine land sites across the U.S. are old hardrock mines. Federal officials may withdraw 10 million acres in six states from new hardrock mining claims to protect greater sage grouse habitat. (courtesy Bureau of Land Management)

— Originally published by Environment & Energy on September 23, 2015, and used here with permissions. — Ed

The Interior Department is considering withdrawing up to 10 million acres in six states from new hardrock mining claims as part of its sweeping federal plans designed to protect and restore greater sage grouse habitat.

The proposal has drawn howls of protest from the mining industry and some congressional leaders, who say the impact of the withdrawals could be devastating to the industry and the mostly rural communities that depend on the jobs and revenue it contributes to local economies.

The withdrawals proposed by the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service target the most critical sage grouse habitat in Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming. The withdrawals are recommended in the federal sage grouse plans finalized by Interior yesterday, and would prohibit new mining claims on the specific BLM or Forest Service lands under the General Mining Law of 1872.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced at a ceremony yesterday outside Denver that the greater sage grouse will not be listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Jewell also announced final approval of the federal grouse plans that amend 98 BLM and Forest Service land-use plans to incorporate grouse protections that buffer the bird’s prime breeding habitats from oil and gas development, hardrock mining, transmission lines and wind turbines (Greenwire, Sept. 22).

The federal plans establish primary habitat management areas and general habitat management areas. The 10 million acres of proposed mining withdrawals cover designated “sagebrush focal areas” — a subset of the primary habitat management areas that are considered “essential for the species’ survival,” and which the agencies will “offer the highest protections in these anchor areas,” according to the plans.

BLM and the Forest Service will honor all ongoing mining activity, as well as all valid claims made before the sage grouse plans were approved, the agencies said.

BLM is set to publish a notice in tomorrow’s Federal Register that “temporarily segregates” the lands from mining claims for up to two years while the Interior secretary considers whether to withdraw the lands from mining claims. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act allows the secretary to withdraw these lands for 20 years or longer, according to an advance notice in today’s Register.

The notice will kick off a 90-day public scoping period running through Dec. 23, as BLM begins an environmental impact statement that will analyze the proposed withdrawals and help form the basis of any decision by the Interior secretary to remove all 10 million acres, or portions of the lands, from new mining claims.

BLM Director Neil Kornze told Greenwire during yesterday’s announcement ceremony in Colorado that the two-year segregation for mining has already taken effect and that the withdrawal areas do not appear to be highly prospective for miners.

“Two years in mining industry time is not that long,” Kornze said, adding that the temporary withdrawal gives BLM time to hear from the public on whether withdrawals would have a positive or negative economic effect and whether maps need to be refined.

But the mining industry strongly objects to the proposed withdrawals, arguing that they are unnecessary to save a bird that the Fish and Wildlife Service has decided does not warrant ESA protections, and that they would harm the industry.

“It will have a significant impact on the ability to develop domestic minerals on federal lands, half of which is already off-limits or under restrictions for mineral development,” National Mining Association President and CEO Hal Quinn said in a statement. “Such a policy is particularly unwise considering the nation’s increasing reliance on foreign sources of minerals to supply the defense, high-tech electronics, advanced energy, medical and other critical industries.”

Quinn’s view is shared by some Western congressional leaders, including Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.). Tipton said in a statement that the conditions in federal grouse plans, “including a likely mineral withdrawal of between 9-10 million acres,” will be “devastating to local economies.”

What’s more, Laura Skaer, executive director of the American Exploration & Mining Association, questioned the veracity of Interior’s claims that the proposed withdrawals cover only 10 million acres.

BLM released a map of the proposed withdrawal areas, the largest of which appear to be in southern Idaho (3.8 million acres) and Oregon (1.9 million acres), as well as northern Nevada (2.7 million acres) and Montana (983,000 acres). Smaller portions covering 252,000 acres in southwest Wyoming and 231,000 acres in northern Utah are also proposed to be withdrawn.

“While BLM continues to imply that the proposed withdrawal will be approximately 10 million acres, the pre-publication notice is by township and appears to include far more than 10 million acres,” Skaer said in an email to Greenwire. “At this stage of the process, we do not trust BLM to limit the withdrawal.”

Skaer also disputed Kornze’s assertion that the mining industry would likely have little interest in the proposed withdrawal areas.

“BLM may assert that the area to be withdrawn is not highly prospective. Neil Kornze knows better,” she said. “He grew up in Nevada, and his father is an accomplished exploration geologist. As technology improves and the knowledge base expands, geologists find mineral deposits today in areas where no one thought they existed in the past.”

But Interior says in the Federal Register that the withdrawals are needed “to protect the Greater Sage-Grouse and its habitat from adverse effects of locatable mineral exploration and mining.”

This is particularly true of the sagebrush focal areas. An Interior fact sheet on the federal sage grouse plans approved yesterday notes that the agency has identified about 12 million acres of focal areas across the grouse’s range.

“The FWS identified these areas as the most important places for the conservation of sage-grouse habitat because [focal areas] have the highest quality habitat, the highest breeding densities, and other criteria important to the persistence of the species,” the fact sheet said.

Thus, the agency said, “these areas receive priority for actions designed to improve the bird’s sagebrush habitat. In short, these areas will be managed with the purpose of maintaining and restoring healthy sagebrush habitat.”

— Reporters Phil Taylor and Manuel Quiñones contributed.

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