Federal policy toward hardrock mining remains largely unchanged since the passage of the General Mining Law of 1872. That legislation was originally intended to promote settlement and economic development of the American West. A century and a quarter later, the region no longer requires congressional coddling, yet more than half a million mines and mill sites remain abandoned throughout the western states. These sites have created 180,000 acres of polluted lakes and reservoirs and 12,000 miles of contaminated streams and rivers. Montana's Blackfoot River, made famous by Norman Maclean's A River Runs through It, is one such battered body of water. Not only did the 1872 law essentially give the land and minerals to miners and mining companies -- and it continues to do so today -- the law also required no mine reclamation or water quality protection. State mining laws likewise required little or no reclamation.
Wounding the West traces the role of hardrock mining and its relationship with the American West by following the environmental history of one Montana mine, the Mike Horse, from its 1898 discovery, through its heyday in the 1940s, subsequent abandonment, and eventual clean-up under the coercion of a state law that many would consider ill-suited for abandoned mines. David Stiller argues that taxpayers should treat mining companies like the for-profit enterprises they are and insist that the hardrock mining industry pay a fair royalty for extracted minerals and then put this funding to work correcting the industry's worst historical abuses.