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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

1,872 Miles for Minerals

Air Date: Week of

Earlier this year, Mr. Larry Tuttle walked 1,872 miles around the Western United States to highlight and discuss the current U.S. law governing mining regulations. Penned in the year 1872, many citizens and activists feel the law is so antiquated, and mineral rights sold so cheaply, that it is in need of a major overhaul. Reform of the Act signed by President Ulysses S. Grant keeps getting discussed but stalled in Washington. Mary Boyle reports from Billings, Montana.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Activists around the country are looking for ways to get back in touch with the grass roots, and find an effective way to get their message across. For Oregon activist Larry Tuttle, who's been working for reform of the country's 1872 Mining Act, that quest led him to take a good, long walk. Producer Mary Boyle prepared our report.

(Music up and under: "When I get off the train and start walking, oh, oh. That's when I feel the way that I was born to in my soul, when I'm walking all around, just walk in my shoes...")

BOYLE: Environmentalist Larry Tuttle isn't walking today. He's taking a well-deserved rest.

TUTTLE: I did mathematical calculations in my head when I was on the trip, and actually walked exact number of steps as you see there, 4,392,560. Zero blisters, about 500 peanut butter sandwiches, that's a conservative estimate I suspect.

BOYLE: The peanut butter sandwiches helped fuel Tuttle's 1,872-mile journey to draw attention to our nation's 1872 Hard Rock Mining Law.

TUTTLE: In May I decided to dramatize the need for mining law reform by walking 1,872 miles between Salem, Oregon, and Denver, Colorado. And I went through the state capitols of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming on that route.

(Music up and under)

BOYLE: To encourage settlement of the West, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the General Mining Law of 1872, legislation that remains unchanged today, 124 years later. This law allows individuals, or mining companies, to buy public land dirt cheap in order to extract hard rock minerals like gold and silver. The issue of reform has been fiercely debated over the past few years.

TUTTLE: The fact that land is transferred to private owners of mining claims for $5 an acre is simply unacceptable. In addition to that, mining companies, whether they're foreign or domestic, pay the Federal taxpayer nothing for the removal of minerals from public lands.

(Traffic sounds and bird calls, footfalls)

BOYLE: For 5 months the western back roads unfolded in front of Tuttle's eyes. The beauty of pronghorn antelope, sparkling streams and sunsets. The tragedy of aluminum cans and diapers strewn along the roads. But not only did Tuttle walk, he talked to anyone about updating the mining law. And he didn't shy away from any community, no matter what the townfolk thought about mining.

(Traffic sounds and footfalls)

TUTTLE: There are no places where I had any kind of a hostile reception. There are certainly places in the West that have more traditionally been connected with mining and sometimes they were a little cooler. There are some mining operations in northern Idaho that are being developed along the Salmon River, and being actively pushed by local Chambers of Commerce and others. And those communities probably were the coolest to me, Challis and Salmon, Idaho. But even there, I was able to talk to some of the citizens that have been active in these issues for a long time. Newspapers were willing to do the story. So I think it was important that we went to those places that are basically in the heart in the mining country as well as areas that would be automatically more friendly to our message.

(People gathered and talking)

BOYLE: No matter where Tuttle visited folks, whether it be in their local coffee shop, community hall, or homes, people always listened.

TUTTLE: So long as I kind of had 3 principles, how I approached them. One, I had to be direct and I had to be honest, and above all I also treat people in a very civil manner. And there is a possibility for dialogue if we approach it that way, something you forget if you're working on high profile issues and you could kind of, I don't know, hard edge I guess I would say.

BOYLE: And Tuttle says he had a hard edge, while working on salmon and old growth forest issues. A commercial banker by trade, Tuttle has served as a county commissioner in Oregon, spearheaded an unsuccessful state initiative tribe to limit mining with cyanide, and has worked for large and small environmental groups. But even with all these experiences, Tuttle says, he forgot what it meant to be an environmentalist.

TUTTLE: For whatever reason there's been a drifting away by the environmental organizations to work only as kind of lobby and litigating kinds of organizations. And what I think has happened is that we've gotten so relied -- we've relied so much on organizations that we've forgotten to do the basics, which is one to one, community organizing.

BOYLE: One on one. That was the intent of Tuttle's walk. He needed to reconnect with small community-based organizations, spend time with real people who live on the land.

TUTTLE: One story that stands out for me is a woman in North Fork, Idaho, who is organizing people in her community to oppose a cyanide heap leach mine proposed for their back yard. and this is someone who works in a hospital, works 12-hour shifts, gets up at 1:30 in the morning and works for 12 hours straight. But what impressed me is, in addition to all of that and all of the kinds of disagreeable things about being an activist in her community, she was still willing to put in 40 hours a week or so to get public information out about this mine. And one of the things I was able to do is hook up with people like that, and I really got a lot of inspiration from their stories.

(Music up and under: "The boss man was so mean, you know, I worked just like a slave Sixteen long hours that'd put anybody in the grave. That's why I'm walkin'. Walkin' my old blues away...")

BOYLE: With plenty of time to think, Tuttle says the walk mellowed him. He lost his hard edge, his anger that would build when people didn't view environmental issues with his degree of passion. He realized that anger only cut him off from the people he was trying to persuade.

TUTTLE: I'm going to have to do a better job as an environmentalist in making connections with these communities. But what we'll have not only is a change for the 1872 Mining Law, but an understanding that we can have a better West without driving people away, and we can protect ground water, we can protect surface water, we can protect traditional industries. That's really what's most important for the entire West. Cuts down not only on the hostility that seems to exist in the West, but really provides a new future for 21st century businesses as well as traditional businesses in communities.

BOYLE: After he finished his trek, Larry Tuttle drove his VW van 1,872 miles from Denver, Colorado, back home to Portland, Oregon. He continues to work fulltime on mining issues as the Director of the Center for Environmental Equity, and walks 7 miles a day. For Living on Earth I'm Mary Boyle in Billings, Montana.



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