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The 1872 Mining Law: Public Lands at Risk

The 1872 Mining Law: Public Lands at Risk

Published: July 2, 2007

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The 1872 Mining Law governs the mining of hardrock minerals (gold, copper, silver, etc.) on federal public lands. It was signed into law over a century ago when Ulysses S. Grant was president and the nation was promoting settlement of the West. Although the west has been settled, the law remains virtually unchanged. More than 270 million acres of federal land are open to hardrock mining under the 1872 Mining Law - almost one-fourth of all land in the U.S., mostly in the Rocky Mountain West and Alaska. Because the 1872 Mining Law has not been meaningfully reformed, many of America's most treasured public lands are at risk -- important wildlife habitat and hunting areas, valuable fisheries, popular recreation sites, vital municipal water supplies and sensitive roadless and wilderness areas.

Emphasis on mining prevents balanced management:
Under the 1872 Mining Law, mining is considered the "highest and best use" for public lands. It elevates mining over all other land uses. As such, federal land managers are unable to balance mining proposals with other important land uses, and ensure that important wildlife habitat, hunting areas, key fisheries, and municipal water supplies are protected. In comparison, all other types of resource extraction (e.g. coal, oil and gas, etc.) on public lands must be weighed against other potential land uses before permittal. Not so with mining. The 1872 Mining Law prevents responsible public lands management, and precludes meaningful local input in federal land management.

Uncontrolled claim-staking threatens important public lands:
Under the 1872 Mining Law, individuals or corporations can stake an unlimited number of mining claims on federal public lands, and hold those claims indefinitely for as little as sixty-two cents an acre per year.[
1] As of the first quarter of 2007, mining claims cover more than 7.2 million acres of federal land. Fueled by sky-high prices for gold and the increased demands from China, claim- staking on public lands is on the rise. Over 89,000 mining claims were staked in 2006 alone, a six-fold increase over the number of claims filed in 2001. Because the 1872 Mining Law was written for a different era, claims can be staked in areas that are unsuitable for mining and in areas that provide other essential land values. Furthermore, as of 2005, roughly 20% of mining claims on American public lands were owned by foreign corporations.

Protecting special places and important public land uses:
Reform of the 1872 Mining Law is needed to protect America's special places and preserve them for future generations. The following examples illustrate special places at risk:

Santa Rita Mountains, Arizona -- A Canadian company is proposing to construct a large open pit copper mine in the Santa Rita Mountains in southern Arizona, despite opposition from the surrounding community and local government. The Santa Rita Mountains are an important recreation area for Tucson, and a biological core area of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan. Unanimous resolutions opposing the mine have been passed by Pima County, Santa Cruz County, the City of Tucson, and the towns of Patagonia, Oro Valley, and Sahuarita.
Boise River, Idaho -- A Canadian company is proposing to construct a large open pit, cyanide leach gold mine at the headwaters of the Boise River. Although the mine will operate for only seven to ten years, it will create an on-going threat to the region's most important water resource. The Boise River is responsible for more than 20 percent of the City of Boise's municipal water supply, critical wildlife and fish habitat, irrigation for agriculture, and a wide range of recreational opportunities. In February 2007, the Boise City Council passed a resolution opposing the proposed mine, and the Boise Mayor called it "an intolerable threat to the river, the environment, and the citizens of Boise."
Mount St. Helens, Washington -- Open pit mining is being proposed at the headwaters of the Green River, and within the 1980 blast zone of Mount St. Helens - one of the world's most active volcanoes. A portion of the proposed mine is located on lands donated to the Forest Service, through the Trust for Public Lands, specifically for conservation purposes. The rest of the company's proposed mining activities would be located on mining claims to the north, regulated under the 1872 Mining law. The Forest Service has determined that the Green River is eligible for wild and scenic status, noting the "scientific, geologic, recreational and scenic resources of this area and the Green River are of national significance and have been determined to be 'outstandingly remarkable.'" It also supports a state fish hatchery, and contributes water to municipal water supplies downstream.

 


  1. Only National Parks and Wilderness Areas and those areas specifically withdrawn from mineral entry are off limits to claim-staking.

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