CONSERVATION groups, lawmakers, and federal agencies are wrestling over a 19th-century United States mining law that helped "win the West" but left a controversial legacy of environmental exploitation and private profit at public expense. The law is defended by the mining industry and some federal officials who say it does a good job of providing the nation with valuable minerals and the West with economic development, criticized by those who say it is as out of date as a single-action revolver. Leading the charge for reform on Capitol Hill is Sen. Dale Bumpers (D) of Arkansas, who sums up the problem this way: "Why should the federal government give a deed to federal lands for $2.50 an acre, allow billions of dollars worth of minerals to be removed from that land, not receive a penny in royalties, and in some cases be required to clean up the mess once the mining has been completed?"
Enacted when Ulysses S. Grant was president and Custer still thought he was a great Indian fighter, the Mining Law of 1872 said miners could stake a claim on potentially profitable federal land. If there was good evidence of valuable minerals on the land they could obtain a patent (legal title) and reap all the profits. The law lured thousands of prospectors to seek their fortune in gold, silver, and copper.
Later laws established restrictions on most forms of natural resource extraction. The Mineral Lands Leasing Act of 1920, for example, retained government title to lands with energy resources like coal, gas, and oil - and required developers to pay royalties on profits from lands they leased. Environmental laws passed in the 1970s set up reclamation requirements and other safeguards against the damages of strip mining.
But the 1872 hard-rock mining law remained largely unaffected by these changes. Claims still can be held for years by doing only $100 worth of work a year on the land. Patents still can be obtained for as little as $2.50 an acre if there is evidence of valuable minerals in the ground. The land can be sold off once title has been obtained. And no royalties need be paid to the public treasury.
Since the mining law was passed 119 years ago, 1.2 million claims totaling 35 million acres have been filed, and about 3.2 million acres in federal lands (an area the size of Connecticut) have been deeded over to hard-rock miners.
Defenders of the law are quick to point out that miners typically must spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop a claim to the point where it can be patented.
"Without the assurance of a patent, many mining companies would not take the risk of fully developing a claim, a claim which might offer valuable minerals vital to our national security," Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada told his fellow lawmakers in debate last fall. Mr. Reid (whose father was a hard-rock miner) further asserted that "mining operations give enormous benefits to the typically rural areas where they are located ... further jobs, further revenue for the county, further development."
IN 1989, the US General Accounting Office (GAO) recommended that the patenting provision of the 1872 law be eliminated and that royalties be paid from mining revenues.
"Escalating land prices, primarily near expanding communities, resort areas, and tourist attractions, have made the act's patent provision an attractive means of acquiring title to valuable land for nonmining purposes," the GAO report states. Some patent holders reaped "huge profits at the government's expense," said the GAO. In one instance, the federal government sold 17,000 acres for $42,500, only to have the owner turn around a few weeks later and sell it to major oil companies for $37 million.
The GAO report brought a stiff rebuttal - not only from the American Mining Congress, which cited "three dozen errors of fact," but also from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the federal agency that oversees mining. According to the BLM, just 29 percent of applicants for a patent are approved. GAO's recommendation that claim holders pay an annual holding fee of $1,000, the BLM says, "would cripple the search for hard-rock minerals."
"This, in turn, could force exploration companies to look at foreign sources such as Australia, Asia, and Latin America," warned the BLM. "Such a reduction in minerals exploration would have significant effects on the general economy of the mining states of the West."
Last year Senator Bumpers lost by two votes an amendment that would have eliminated the patenting of mining claims. This year he's back with a "Mining Law Reform Act" that would give the federal government a royalty of 5 percent of the gross value of minerals found (one third to be set aside in trust to clean up abandoned mines), require reclamation plans along with bonds or other forms of security to see that reclamation was performed once mining was completed, give federal agencies new authority to pr otect the environment in mining areas, and eliminate patents.
Stewart Udall, former secretary of the interior and now board chairman of the Mineral Policy Center in Washington, D.C., calls such reform "the most important piece of unfinished business on the nation's natural resource agenda."