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Mining on Federal Lands

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The General Mining Law of 1872 is one of the major statutes that direct the federal government's land management policy. 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 has imposed a moratorium on mining claim patents since FY1995.

In addition to the overall issue of whether to reform the General Mining Law, two issues also have been controversial. One involves mining millsites. At issue is whether the General Mining Law limits claimants to one millsite of no more than five acres per mining claim, or whether multiple millsites are allowed. In 1997, the Solicitor of the Department of the Interior ruled that only one millsite of no more than five acres was allowed per claim. The 106th Congress provided a two-year exemption from the Solicitor's opinion for mines with approved plans of operation, operations with plans submitted prior to the Solicitor's opinion, and patent applications grandfathered as part of the 1995 mining patent moratorium (P.L. 106-113). However, a 2003 opinion by the Bush Administration overturned the 1997 ruling and allows multiple millsites per mining claim, if necessary.

A second issue involves the Clinton Administration's revisions to the regulations governing hardrock mining operations on federal lands (43 CFR 3809), which took effect January 20, 2001. The revised regulations authorized BLM to deny mining operations if they would result in "substantial irreparable harm" to significant resources that cannot be mitigated. On October 30, 2001 (66 Fed. Reg. 54834), BLM issued a final rule that removed many of the controversial aspects of the Clinton regulations. A November 18, 2003, federal district court decision supported the Bush Administration's revision of the rules (66 Fed. Reg 54834).

Three bills pertaining to hardrock mining were introduced in the 108th Congress, but there was no House or Senate action: the Elimination of Double Subsidies for the Hardrock Mining Industry Act of 2003 (S. 44), the Abandoned Hardrock Mines Reclamation Act of 2003 (H.R. 504), and the Mineral Exploration and Development Act of 2003 (H.R. 2141). H.R. 504 would have established a Reclamation Fund financed by reclamation fees imposed on hardrock mineral producers. H.R. 2141 would have imposed an 8% net smelter royalty, allowed for an unsuitability review by the Secretary of the Interior or Agriculture, and established a reclamation bond or financial guarantee and a reclamation fund. Also in both sessions of the 108th Congress, the Interior and Related Agencies appropriations bills included a provision to retain a patent moratorium that has been imposed annually since 1995.


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