More than 5,000 abandoned mines dot the national forest and BLM landscapes across Idaho, and the estimated price tag for cleaning them up ranges from $486 million to over $1 billion, according to a new report by the Center for Western Priorities. The report sheds new light on potential costs associated with the state’s proposal to seize public lands.

"We’ve already established that Idaho taxpayers can’t afford the high cost of wildfire and recreation management across millions of acres of public lands. With the added billion-dollar costs of mine cleanup, Idaho would have no option but to sell off large swaths of national forests and other public lands," said Jonathan Oppenheimer, senior conservation associate with the Idaho Conservation League.

The report identified nearly 100,000 abandoned mines across the West, with estimated cleanup costs exceeding $21 billion-a price tag that proponents of transferring public lands to the states fail to account for. Today, abandoned mine cleanup costs are borne by the federal government, but the costs for cleaning up the 5,035 abandoned mines in Idaho would be the responsibility of Idaho taxpayers if those public lands were transferred to the state.

In an analysis of this issue in 2012, Idaho Department of Lands Director Tom Schultz wrote:

There could be thousands of abandoned mines on the lands eligible for transfer… This would probably include many sites with dangerous mine openings or soil and water contamination. The State’s potential liability for these sites would increase significantly.

In December 2013, an analysis conducted by Dr. Evan Hjerpe of the Conservation Economics Institute estimated that the cost to Idaho taxpayers would total $2 billion over 20 years. This tax burden was based largely on added costs that would come from the state taking over timber, fire and recreation management and did not include the potential cleanup of abandoned mines.

"Given this new information, it is likely that the costs of a public lands takeover would cost Idaho taxpayers significantly more than previously estimated," said Dr. Hjerpe of the Idaho-based Conservation Economics Institute.

The report also highlights the need to reform the Mining Law of 1872. Under that law, mining companies are allowed to remove gold, silver, copper, uranium and other minerals from public lands without paying royalties on the ore they remove. Instead, mining companies often leave a legacy of pollution on public lands and saddle taxpayers with the reclamation costs.

"Western states shouldn’t be supporting initiatives that force citizens to shoulder billions of dollars in abandoned mine cleanup costs," said Earthworks policy director Lauren Pagel. "Instead, they should be supporting reform of the 1872 Mining Law, like what Sens. Udall, Bennet and others have introduced, so that polluters pay the cleanup bill and not western taxpayers."

Oppenheimer concluded, "It’s time to abandon the short-sighted efforts of some politicians to grab America’s public lands and instead focus on efforts to reform antiquated mining laws that are costing taxpayers millions of dollars while mining companies realize billions in profits."