On a bright August afternoon in Scotia, a logging town in Humboldt County, California, Amy Arcuri drove her van to the end of Main Street and parked near a locked gate. For three years she and her friend, who calls himself Lodgepole, had been sneaking food through a gap in the fence and up to fellow tree sitters camped in an ancient redwood tagged for the chainsaw. But on this day, just after they stepped out of Arcuri's van, a timber-company truck spotted them and crunched to a halt. A large, ruddy man with a thick mustache sprang from the driver's seat and approached with a glint of metal in his hand.
In an 11th hour move, the Bush Administration today reversed an old federal rule that would have allowed Congress to take action to protect the Grand Canyon from a rash of new uranium mining claims. Driven by renewed national interest in nuclear power, the number of uranium claims staked within five miles of the Grand Canyon has increased from 10 in 2003 to 1,181 as of this October. Rampant mining near the Canyon would threaten the water quality of the Colorado River, potentially jeopardizing the drinking water supply of millions of residents in Las Vegas and Southern California. Prompted in part by the concerns of local water agencies, in June the House Committee on Natural Resources invoked its right under the Federal Land Management and Policy Act to withdraw the mining claims. But the Bureau of Land Management refused to implement the order, and the Bush Administration's rule change today gives it official authority to thumb its nose at Congress.
Ultimately, Bush's move will probably do more to increase his radioactivity with voters than it will to heat up the tap water in Las Vegas; the Obama Administration will certainly reverse Bush's reversal. But more important, the Grand Canyon flap underscores the hopeless antiquity of the nation's mining laws. The General Mining Law of 1872, which was written by Nevada's first senator and signed into law by President Grant, enshrines mining as the "highest and best use" on 350 million acres of federal land. It also allows mining companies to cart off public minerals without paying a cent of royalties. Efforts to reform the law began almost as soon as it passed and have failed at ever turn, including this year, when a reform bill was to have been introduced in the Senate but wasn't. But with Bush-era environmental horrors fresh on the mind, and public coffers emptied, expect that to change in the coming session.
In February 2004, San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom began officiating same-sex weddings on the steps of City Hall. Over the next month, more than 4,000 couples tied the knot in defiance of a state referendum that had banned gay marriage in California in 2000. Newsom says he challenged the law out of a sense of "moral obligation." But his move awakened a sense of moral outrage among Republicans, who raced to put anti-gay-marriage initiatives on the ballot in 11 states. After John Kerry lost in November, some Democrats suggested that the specter of gay marriage had thrown the contest to George W. Bush. "I believe it did energize a very conservative vote," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said immediately after the election. "It gave them a position to rally around. The whole issue has just been too much, too fast, too soon."
New polls show Proposition 8, the California ballot measure banning gay marriage, winning in November by a margin of four to five points. This is a dramatic shift from what they'd indicated in recent months and up to as late as a week ago, when one of the same polls showed Prop 8 losing by the same margin. Since then, Prop 8 backers have blanketed the state's airwaves with an ad featuring San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom proclaiming in a speech that gay marriage will happen "whether you like it or not"--a comment that may play on unfounded fears of government intervention. Inexplicably, one poll attributed much of the recent shift to young voters, who have typically been the most stalwart supporters of gay rights. In what's shaping up to be one of the costliest ballot measures on a cultural issue in state history, Prop 8 backers complain that they're being outspent, with a significant amount of Prop 8 funding coming from the Mormon Church. As I've written in the past, the gay marriage issue poses little if any threat to Barack Obama this year. Even so, the recent movement in the polls indicates that support for gay rights remains disturbingly malleable.