The following op-ed was co-authored by R Street Senior Fellow Catrina Rorke.
For Nevada, President Donald Trump’s ongoing review of national monuments signals an economic opportunity that won’t just create jobs and draw investment, but could right the ship on a major national security concern. Western states sit atop one of the world’s richest deposits of high-value minerals, but they’re currently locked away from development.
Minerals are a fundamental building block to economic prosperity. The industries that rely on minerals contributed $2.78 trillion to the U.S. economy last year and produce goods as varied as energy equipment, medical devices, agricultural products, household goods and technologies essential to the national defense. Some minerals are so necessary to military operations that the Pentagon includes 37 mineral commodities as part of the Defense National Stockpile.
As recently as 1990, the United States was the world’s largest producer of mineral resources, capable of supplying a significant portion of our demand. Over the past quarter-century, quite a different trend has emerged.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Geological Survey reported that, of 88 important minerals they track, the United States is more than 25 percent import-dependent for 62 of them. For 20 of those, the country relies 100 percent on imports. Many of those 20 key minerals are absolutely critical to the economy and national defense. This mounting import dependency at some point must be considered a vulnerability.
This vulnerability is not a matter of geology, but of policy. The American West hosts one of the largest, most diverse and most unusually concentrated mineral belts in the world, extending from Colorado to the Pacific Ocean. That geological terrain houses world-class deposits of minerals such as chromium, copper, fluorine, gold, molybdenum, platinum and uranium, to name just a few. Reports from the U.S. Geological Survey suggest that, for many significant minerals, identified and undiscovered deposits dwarf all that has been produced so far.
So why is the United States so import-dependent?
Simply, U.S. minerals policy has abandoned any adherence to the “conservation ethic,” the principle upon which federal lands management was founded. In his memoir, Gifford Pinchot, the founding chief of the U.S. Forest Service, defined conservation as “the wise use of the earth and its resources for the lasting good of men.”
Lands policy has instead tipped toward “preservation,” the view that resources have more inherent value than productive value. In minerals mining and production, that’s prompted excessively long permitting timelines, land withdrawals and capitulation to environmental opposition. The federal lands management agencies fail in their obligation to be wise stewards of the public domain.
That’s one of the motivating factors behind the president’s recent effort to think critically about the broad swath of lands designated for preservation. His April executive order to evaluate national monuments designated by prior presidents under the Antiquities Act specifically asks for consideration of whether the monuments designation impacts the longstanding multiple-use policy embraced by our lands management agencies. We’ll finally understand if reshaping lands like the Basin and Range or Gold Butte national monuments could present opportunities for Nevadans to get to work improving local and national economic opportunity and security.
More substantive policy reforms to expand domestic minerals mining and production could and should follow. Earlier this year, members of the Nevada and Idaho congressional delegations introduced in both chambers the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act, charging the Interior and Agriculture departments with more efficiently developing these minerals on federal lands.
The president can order a broader public lands inventory and identify potential hotspots for minerals development. More informed, data-driven consideration of our mineral resources will allow the United States to better reconcile its economic needs with its devotion to environmental protection.
America is blessed with expansive mineral deposits and a more secure mineral future is within reach. Conscientious policy reforms to cultivate a smaller, less intrusive and more focused minerals policy can successfully balance the development of public resources and environmental protection, empower the marketplace and shift the United States away from over-reliance on imports of critical and strategic minerals.
Image by Neil Lockhart