WHEN SOMEONE DIGS YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD

MINERS--SPURRED BY NEW TECHNOLOGY AND INPENDING REGULATORY REFORM--SCURRY TO LOCK UP MINERAL RIGHTS. RESIDENTS OF WALKER, ARIZONA, FEAR THEY'RE ABOUT TO GET THE SHAFT.

Tara McCabe, a thin and thirtysomething woman with a world-weary grin, thought she had found a slice of paradise three years ago when she moved to Walker, a Bradshaw Mountain hideaway that started out last century as a booming gold camp.

In a world of encroaching concrete, Walker is a refuge, a place where the strike of a hammer on wood can echo for miles. A place where, even when the moon is full, the thick forest canopy brings a dense darkness to the hillsides. A place where coyotes really do bay, and residents are so society-shy that some fought the implementation of 911-emergency service last year because it would require the county to put up street signs.

But now McCabe sees history repeating itself, intruding on her Eden. A modern-day mining company--Marra/Majestic-Paystreak Partners Inc.--thinks the town still has gold to give, and has announced its intention to reopen the old diggings.

McCabe and her neighbors face the prospect of dynamite blasts in their residential neighborhoods, tunnels and pits dug practically in their backyards, contamination of their water supply and lasting damage to wildlife and the pristine woods that drew them to Walker in the first place.

And when McCabe began to organize the townsfolk in protest, the company tried to bully her, even buying up the mineral rights to her property, thus suggesting that her living room might mark a good spot to dig a hole.

If this were an old Western movie, one would expect the law, brandishing six-guns and wearing a silver star, to ride in and save the day in the nick of time. The only problem is, the law is bound to bow to the mining company's desires, and work against community preservationists.

The 1872 Mining Law recently made national headlines when Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt called a press conference to denounce it. The law allows mining companies to "patent" (in effect, purchase) the right to remove minerals on federal lands for a fee of less than $5 an acre. Over the years, enterprising mine conglomerates have happily taken advantage of this deal of the century--carrying an estimated $360 billion worth of gold, silver and other precious metals off public property.

To highlight the magnitude of the problem, Babbitt cited the recent filing, by Barrick Goldstrike Mines Inc., a Canadian company, of patents on federal land near Elko, Nevada, that promise to be the biggest haul in U.S. mining history. For less than $10,000, Barrick has captured the rights to what government geologists estimate is $10 billion worth of gold.

Calling the gold giveaway a "rape" of the taxpayers, who Babbitt says should benefit from the billions in mineral wealth, he used the Barrick claim to illustrate why the mine bill should be immediately reformed.

But as egregious as the Barrick patents may be, Babbitt, a former Arizona governor, could just as easily have cited the situation in Walker, which is built in and around national forest land, to show what is wrong with the nation's archaic mining regulations.

What Babbitt failed to mention is that the mining law not only costs taxpayers billions in lost revenues, but also grants miners wide latitude in deciding where to mine. They can dig almost anywhere on federal property where the diamonds sparkle or the gold glistens.

Even if the rich vein of mineral wealth is someplace difficult or dangerous to reach.

Even if it is directly underneath a town.
No one claims there is anything approaching $10 billion in gold under Walker, but it is in this little town--on the fault line where public and private land meet--that it becomes apparent there is a high human cost, as well as a financial one, to the antiquated mining law. For unlike the Barrick claim, which is located in a desolate region populated primarily by vultures and rattlers, Walker is a place where people live.

Although the mining company insists it has no intention of harming the town or its people, under the 1872 law, modern-day miner-49ers can dig, blast and scrape the forest down to the nub, and never stick so much as a toe over the legal line.

Nor is Walker alone in facing mine-related injuries. According to enviro-groups like the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club, such scenes are likely to be repeated all over the West, as new mining technology and the old law combine to make former mining towns--many of which have evolved into placid, residential havens--inviting targets.

Some experts predict that small, "boutique" mining operations will become a trend in the West. There are hundreds of small, mineral-rich townsites that are built adjacent to or on federal lands. And as the law stands now, if there is any gold under them thar little burgs, they, and the people they now contain, will just have to make way.

Fueling this new gold rush is the fact that mining companies know the free-for-all 1872 law won't stand for long. Thanks largely to Babbitt, it is clear that the moldy mine law's days are numbered. Now is the time to get, while the getting is good.

Congress may amend the law as soon as this fall, but that won't come soon enough for Walker and other towns. By then, mining operations may have license to destroy what it is that makes the communities truly valuable to their residents.

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