SALT LAKE CITY — The vice president of the National Mining Association says a federal proposal to withdraw 10 million acres from any new hard rock mining to save the sage grouse is not only unnecessary but a punitive move meant to "exterminate" the industry.
"This is just another reason why a lot of people feel this administration simply wants to exterminate the mining industry in this country," said Luke Popovich. "They're using this as a rationale to drive this industry underground, no pun intended."
The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service have proposed to take 10 million acres of federal land off the table for any new hard rock mining as part of dozens of proposed land use management plans throughout the West that aim to protect the greater sage grouse.
Public comment on the proposal ended last month, and the agencies are now in the evaluation stage of the proposal, which would put 233,300 acres off-limits in Utah.
"Frankly, we don't think there is much of a chance the administration will withdraw the rule and is not really interested in what we had to say," Popovich added in a telephone interview with the Deseret News. "It is all now just a race to the finish line to get as many regulatory actions through federal rule-making completed before time runs out for this president."
The areas under proposed withdrawal in Utah include federal lands in northwestern Box Elder County straddling the border with Nevada and another swath of land in northern Rich County.
Mark Compton, president of the Utah Mining Association, said there is no mining activity in that region now, but he's concerned that federal agencies want to put it off-limits because of what may happen in the future.
"It may be an area of low mining potential now, but with a change in technology and commodity prices, that could change a couple of decades from now," he said.
Quincy Bahr, the Utah BLM's project lead for the greater sage grouse, said that "potential" is exactly why the federal government is working now to protect high-value, premier habitat with thriving populations of greater sage grouse.
"What it really comes down to is the concept of certainty," he said. "These management areas will provide certainty for the species going forward."
Bahr pointed to the Pinedale, Wyoming, area and its natural gas reserves as an example of where sage grouse populations were not threatened by industry activity, but new technology changed that.
"In light of situations like that, we are looking to provide certainty that the species will have high conservation management strategies that will be in place for areas with high-value landscapes, high bird density and good quality habitat."
Mining, too, is much tougher for the agencies to work around because of protections built into an 1872 law, which Bahr said affords a "substantial body of rights," once somebody asserts a claim. Agencies can invoke stipulations on industry that holds leases, but not so much in mining.
"That flexibility is absent under the 1872 law," Bahr said.
But the industry associations say they are perplexed by such a sweeping proposal when a federal analysis shows that activities such as mining, ranching and oil and gas exploration impact only 7 percent of the bird's ecoystem.
They also point to a recent report by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies that shows the bird, in contrast to being on the decline, had population increases of 63 percent since 2013.
"Obviously we are very concerned with this large-scale mineral withdrawal," Compton said. "Most of the reports on the listing determination did not identify mining as a significant threat, but instead named wildfires and invasive (species) as the top threats. Yet mining is being asked to pay the price with mining withdrawals that are vastly disproportionate with its footprint."
Popovich said the United States already has to import 100 percent of 19 key minerals used in the country and is more than 50 percent import-reliant on another 24 minerals.
Federal land in the Western United States holds the vast majority of the nation's mineral deposits, including copper, gold, nickel and zinc, according to Popovich.
"This will only aggravate the problem and make this country more dependent on foreign nations," he said.
Popovich said the association is detailing its concerns with members of Congress and the impacted states, adding that a lawsuit over the proposed withdrawal is not out of the question.