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Mining on Federal Lands: Hardrock Minerals

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Mining of hardrock minerals on federal lands is governed primarily by the General Mining Law of 1872. The law grants free access to individuals and corporations to prospect for minerals in public domain lands, and allows them, upon making a discovery, to stake (or "locate") a claim on that deposit. A claim gives the holder the right to develop the minerals and may be "patented" to convey full title to the claimant. A continuing issue is whether this law should be reformed, and if so, how to balance mineral development with competing land uses.

The right to enter the public domain and freely prospect for and develop minerals is the feature of the claim-patent system that draws the most vigorous support from the mining industry. Critics consider the claim-patent system a giveaway of publicly owned resources because of the small amounts paid to maintain a claim and to obtain a patent. Congress, however, has imposed a moratorium on mining claim patents through the annual Interior spending bill since FY1995.

The lack of direct statutory authority for environmental protection under the Mining Law of 1872 is another major issue that has spurred reform proposals. Many Mining Law supporters contend that other current laws provide adequate environmental protection. Critics, however, argue that these general environmental requirements are not adequate to assure reclamation of mined areas.

Broad-based legislation to reform the General Mining Law of 1872 has been introduced in recent Congresses and may be introduced in the 110th Congress.


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