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-
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. …