Hardrock mining on U.S. public lands is regulated by a federal statute called the 1872 General Mining Law. The law, signed by Ulysses S. Grant, declares that, "All valuable mineral deposits in lands belonging to the United States, both surveyed and unsurveyed, are hereby declared to be free and open to exploration and purchase, and the lands in which they are found to occupation and purchase, by citizens of the United States and those who have declared their intention to become such."
The law established mining as the “best use” for 2/3 of our federally managed lands, over 270 million acres. However, it did not include any provisions for environmental protection or post-mining reclamation.
The 1872 Mining Law allows individuals and mining companies to patent mineral-rich public lands for $2.50 to $5.00 an acre. Since the law’s enactment, over 3.5 million acres of public land have been sold to private owners for no more than $5.00 per acre. The coal, oil, and gas industries have since been removed from the mining law’s jurisdiction and pay a 12.5% royalty on the commodities they extract from public land. There is no similar provision in the 1872 Mining Law, causing the federal government to lose an estimated $125 million annually in possible royalties.
In 1994, Congress passed a moratorium on future patenting, temporarily suspending the opportunity to place claims on public lands. Although the moratorium has been renewed annually since that time, it does not prevent companies from mining existing claims.
The 1872 Mining Law
The Claim-Patent System