Saturday, September 17, 2011

What happens when the mines reopen?

The landscape of the rural American West is littered with boom-and-bust mining towns. When the mines close, it is not unusual for the population to leave with the jobs. If the town and its inhabitants are lucky, a new economy might fill the mines' place. But what happens if the mines reopen?

About 40 minutes outside of my hometown of Reno, the small town of Virginia City, Nevada is in the midst of just such a battle between the past and the present. Over 150 years after the discovery of the Comstock Lode gave birth to Virginia City, Comstock Mining hopes to resume major mining operations, including an open pit mine, within several miles of town. These plans face major opposition from residents who, according to the Wall Street Journal, "favor history over the real thing" and are concerned about how mining will affect tourism.

Like many boomtowns, Virginia City was once one of the largest cities in the West. In the late 1800s, tens of thousands of miners pulled hundreds of millions of dollars worth of gold and silver out of the ground. Today, as a designated National Historic District, the main industry is tourism. Visitors can walk along wooden sidewalks, learn about Mark Twain's stint as a journalist for the Territorial Enterprise, stay in a haunted hotel, and otherwise "Step Back in Time," as the town's advertising slogan invites them to do.

So, is the battle over the new mines rooted simply in one economy versus another, in historic preservation versus progress? Or is there a rural versus urban element at play? At first glance, the new mining plans could be viewed as a case of a big urban corporation taking advantage of a small town long enough to suck it dry of its valuable natural resources. Although Comstock Mining Inc. is a publicly held Nevada-based corporation, its largest investor is, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out, "an entrepreneur from Los Angeles."

In terms of population, the Virginia City of today is very rural: it boasts just 855 residents and is the county seat of Storey County, which has just over 4,000 residents. The town has one elementary school, one middle school, and one high school that, all together, serve a few hundred students.

In other ways, Virginia City can seem like a tourist outpost of the nearby cities of Reno and Carson City. The National Historic District attracts millions of visitors each year and is a short drive (in good weather) to urban amenities and services like supermarkets, malls, medical centers, and a major university. Storey County is located within the Reno-Sparks Metropolitan Statistical Area.

As described in the Wall Street Journal and local papers, opposition to the mine seems to center around protecting historical treasures as well as a way of life. Not only is the proposed mining area very small in terms of population, but Virginia City is also located up a steep grade, with views of the surrounding valleys. Modern mining could change that atmosphere. As one nearby resident put it, "[i]nstead of hearing the birds, you hear this industrial pounding."

In a recent article in the Nevada Appeal, one resident, Tom Cleaves, also hit upon the issues of local autonomy and the controversial role of the extraction industry:
At the last meeting there were people from back east testifying about what a nice guy the mining company's CEO is...An out-of-town investor scolded resident for being non-supportive, and a technical expert/investor from Arizona expounded at length on the virtues of mining, while local people had to stand and wait outside for hours to talk about the issues.
After the county planning commission recently recommended to grant Comstock Mining a permit for exploration drilling, a group of citizens appealed the decision. According to one resident, David Toll,
More than 400 residents, well over half the voters in Gold Hill and Virginia City, have petitioned the county to refuse the permit, yet our concerns have scarcely been acknowledged...[F]or this history-making decision the people are being marginalized.
Despite Virginia City's strong tourism economy, some argue that the mines could bring much-needed jobs. Nevada's statewide unemployment rate is 13.8%, and Storey County's is at a slightly higher 13.9%. And rather than intending to destroying the tourism economy, Comstock Mining claims wants to be "good neighbors." According to the San Jose Mercury News,
Comstock Mining officials have said they think modern mining can coexist with history and complement the tourism trade.
Although Comstock Mining owns the mining claims, it appears that the decision whether or not to allow them to proceed with mining the earth will ultimately be a local one. Only time and the local planning commission's appeals process will tell whether modern mining will be allowed to bring jobs and responsible growth to this rural, and historic, area.


KevinN said...

I found it interesting that one of the local residents cited the potential noise as an issue. The last several times I've visited Virginia City, it was overrun by motorcycles. It seems like Virginia City has become a popular destination for weekend "poker runs" for Harley riders, probably as a result of Geiger Grade's twists and turns. As a result, it was almost impossible to hold a conversation outside of the shops and whenever a group of bikes arrived or took off, their noise permeated the walls as well. Complaining about the possible noise of a mining operation several miles out of town seems to be disingenuous. I think the bigger issue here might be the idea of an outsider coming into a small town. Most native Nevadans I know take pride in the fact that they were born and raised in the state and look with suspicion on anyone that moved in from California. Although the mining company is a Nevada corporation, the fact that its primary owner is from California (and Los Angeles to boot), seems to me to be the real reason the locals aren't interested in a mine starting up operations in the area.

JT said...

You bring up an interesting issue of the tension between a desire to develop a rural area in the name of "progress" while maintaining the historical integrity of the place. There seems to be an underlying assumption that because rural areas are behind in certain advancements such as technology, that they would would automatically want it.

Virginia City exemplifies a town where their slogan to "step back in time" and their tourism industry depends on literally, not developing or having too many progressive advancements.

As Kevin points out, Virginia City residents seem to resist an "outside" intrusion. On the one hand, they would economically benefit from the developments (such as opening mines), but on the other hand, at what cost? Their ability to determine the fate of their own hometown?

It will be interesting to see the outcome of the mining discussion. Moreover, on a larger scale, I wonder how many other rural areas share similar sentiments towards outside developers?

Jason said...

I can understand the town's reluctance to lose a bit of it's small town identity and lack of autonomy. But maybe they should look for the silver lining.

My dad was recently asked by an aquaintance to spend a month in a "new" South Dakota oil town. The town has been around for years but the population has exploded in the last few years with the discovery of oil.

My dad said that 90% of the buildings and homes are brand new, new businesses are coming in all the time, and employers are doing everything they can to entice workers to work for them.

He said Walmart was actually short staffed because despite a higher than average wage of $9 an hour, McDonalds and other fast food places were paying $10 and providing full benefits.

Until he retired a year ago, my dad worked for Verizon and AT&T, routing fiber optic and telephone lines. He did well, but they paid him almost 4 times his old hourly wage for his quick month in South Dakota.

While the entire Nation is in a recession, the new mines may be a good thing for Virginia City, especially with Nevada's high unemployment rates.