Fields of Dust: Not Yet Consigned to History, the 1872 Mining Law Still Scars the West

By Hamilton, Joan | Sierra, January-February 1993 | Go to article overview

Fields of Dust: Not Yet Consigned to History, the 1872 Mining Law Still Scars the West


Hamilton, Joan, Sierra


HARDROCK MINERALS--mostly metals such as gold, zinc, silver, copper, and lead--are pulled from the earth by corporations that can literally move mountains. These mining behemoths have replaced the grizzled forty-niner's pickax and shovel with mega-tons of explosives, cyanide-laced ponds, and machines that can gnash a thousand pounds of earth in a single bite. In the process of changing landscapes into moonscapes, they spew out more solid waste each year than all other industrial and municipal sources combined.

For a pittance, our government has given, miners in this country title to some 3 million acres of what was once public land. Yet the ground rules of mining remain essentially the same as they were 120 years ago, when President Ulysses S. Grant signed the General Mining Law of 1872. This anachronistic statute invites hardrock miners to take their pick of (and to) more than 400 million acres of public lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Miners can either extract the minerals for free and give the land back, or "patent" the claim--that is, win title to land and minerals alike for no more than $5 an acre. a $100 investment in the claim, and evidence of a valuable mineral deposit. In an age 0 multi-trillion-dollar national debts, the 1872 Mining Law is not only a frontier-era throwback, but a taxpayer give away as big as all outdoors. In one General Accounting Office study of 20 claims recently patented under the law, the government received a paltry $4,500 for land worth $47 million. That was a small gift compared with the one Stillwater Mining (a Chevron-Manville partnership) will receive for its platinum and palladium claims in the Beartooth Mountains of Montana.

There, taxpayers are about to relinquish an estimated $32 billion worth of ore for little more than $10,000.

The financially pampered hardrock entrepreneur doesn't even have to extract the minerals from the land. Once Uncle Sam hands over the deed, the "miner" can decide to build a retirement . …

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Fields of Dust: Not Yet Consigned to History, the 1872 Mining Law Still Scars the West
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