Out West, Private Claims to Public Land Could Slow ; Companies Would Pay $1,000 per Acre or More If Congress Revises an 1872 Mining Law

Article excerpt

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. …