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Save minerals--and land

In calling for the opening of public lands for mineral development, President Reagan has initated a national debate that should now be joined by the US scientific and environmental communities as well as the American people. For the mining and development issue obviously goes beyond the matter of ensuring supplies of the minerals vital to industry and national security, as argued by the White House. There are also equally pressing policy questions involving the degree to which public lands should be exploited, the devising of fair and appropriate tax policies to foster development where absolutely necessary, and providing that current strategic mineral reserves are stockpiled.

The administration has the responsibility of proving that strategic minerals cannot be met by reliable overseas suppliers before turning private enterprises loose in public lands. Currently, between 40 and 68 percent of public lands are closed off to such development. The administration argues that such a large-scale closure has made the US vulnerable. Yet restrictions on public land development have been put in place by successive administrations, Republican and Democratic. To open up those lands for development without a thorough examination would seem to be unwise.

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That is not to deny that in some cases limited development may be essential. To determine such rare cases, however, would require a national council on minerals and materials, as proposed by some scientists. Once established, such a council could undertake a detailed inventory of resources on public lands and determine whether it would be best to develop such minerals, or leave them in the ground as a ''reserve.''

Several additional factors might be mentioned. As suggested in a series on minerals by Monitor natural science editor Robert Cowen earlier this year, the administration should seek reliable foreign sources for those minerals that must be imported, set realistic quotas for stockpiles, and speedily fill those stockpiles. At the same time, the administration might consider supporting greater research in the minerals areas, including programs geared to synthetics, education of new minerals scientists, and better recycling of used minerals. Tax policies should also encourage recycling by industry. Congress and the administration will also want to consider the extent to which overseas firms, or US firms with foreign links, should be allowed to engage in development; also, whether in fact US companies could even undertake such development while the minerals industry is in such poor financial condition, as many experts insist is now the case.

In short, the administration's call for opening up public lands usefully spurs a debate that is long overdue. But until such time as a comprehensive minerals program is put in place, Congress should take all necessary steps to ensure that the public interest--which means public land--is protected from premature and unwise exploitation.

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