Out West, private claims to public land could grow

Companies would pay as little as $1,000 per acre if Congress revises an 1872 mining law.

[Editor's note: The original headline and summary mischaracterized the trend of claims to public land.]

Back when Ulysses S. Grant was president and the American West was mostly wide open spaces, Congress passed a law making it easy for miners to stake claims, dig up gold and other precious metals, and "patent" federal land (essentially assuming ownership) for as little as $2.50 an acre.

Over the years, giant earthmovers and foreign investors replaced mules and pick-axes. But the 1872 law remains on the books - a controversial remnant of US history, which has come to have considerable economic, cultural, and environmental significance.

Congress this week is revisiting that history as it debates changes to public lands management that could affect hundreds of millions of acres and billions of dollars in potential revenue from hardrock minerals, not to mention the oil and gas discovered long after President Grant himself became an historical figure.

Advocates of changing the 1872 law say valuable resources - especially domestic energy sources - are much needed in an unstable world. Since 1993, according to the US Geological Survey, US reliance on imported minerals increased seven-fold.

Their proposal, part of the House budget reconciliation bill that could be voted on as soon as Thursday, would end the annual moratorium on land patenting imposed in 1994. The aim of that Clinton-era move was to prevent mining companies (including some that are foreign-owned) from controlling federal land at low cost.

The measure would end the $2.50- per-acre provision of the 1872 law, replacing it with a $1,000-per-acre fee - or "fair market value" if higher, although that can be difficult to determine - for privatizing public lands with mineral potential.

The idea here, supporters of the provision say, is to raise some $158 million over five years and encourage "sustainable economic development" in parts of the country traditionally reliant on natural resources for jobs and revenue but also subject to boom-and-bust cycles.

It might also encourage more oil and gas development, because companies that now lease federal land for energy production would be able to buy it.

Opponents of this 21st-century effort to open up the West call it a land grab, which would worsen an already archaic law.

They warn that mineral exploration and development could imperil environmental and cultural treasures around the region, such as the north rim of Grand Canyon National Park.

Instead, they propose, mining companies should have to pay royalties - as coal companies and oil producers do on federal land. An 8 percent royalty (the same now applied to coal mined from federal land) is estimated to bring Uncle Sam $350 million over five years.

All of this sets up a contest between two opposing views about how to manage the wide open spaces.

"Patenting and purchase of lands are absolutely vital to the health of Nevada's rural communities," said Rep. Jim Gibbons, (R) of Nevada in a statement.

He is sponsoring the legislation to change the General Mining Law of 1872. "It expands the tax base of the local government, which in turn funds schools, emergency services, and other infrastructure," he says.

There's another provision many Western lawmakers and the mining industry favor: allowing roads and other infrastructure left behind by mining companies to remain rather than be removed as part of land restoration. They point out that many towns and cities in the West - Denver, Aspen, and Telluride, Colo., among them - started out as remnants of mining sites.

"We think it's good public policy and could do a lot to help mining communities," says Carol Raulston, senior vice president of the industry group National Mining Association.

The problem as critics see it is that reforming the 133-year-old law this way would make it much easier to obtain title to federal land at relatively low cost - whether or not it had valuable minerals beneath it - and then develop it for a ski resort, casino, or condominiums.

The Earthworks Minerals Center, a conservation group, figures that some 200 million acres of federal land could be opened to such sale.

With gold selling at $460 an ounce these days, potential mine sites are increasingly valuable. But it's not just miners who want the land.

A coalition of industry watchdog groups dubbed the "Citizens Mining Company" recently plunked down $9.25 an acre in fees and staked 50 claims totaling 1,000 acres in six Western states (Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, and New Mexico).

"The 1872 mining law has done nothing to protect Western treasures like the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness in Montana," said Allen Rosenfeld, director of the Westerners for Responsible Mining campaign. "That's why we're using the law to take matters into our own hands. We intend to hold those claims until the law is replaced."

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