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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Claiming Public Lands

Air Date: Week of

(Photo: Eric Whitney)

Environmental activists have long complained that an antiquated federal law makes it easy for mining companies to develop public land for mining. Efforts to reform what's known as the Mining Act of 1872 stalled under President Clinton. So now some groups are using the very law they say is broken to claim public land and protect it. From member station KRCC in Colorado Springs, Eric Whitney reports on the new campaign and competing bills in Congress that would re-write the law that permits mining on public land.


CURWOOD: An antiquated federal law makes it cheap and easy for mining companies to use public land, convert it to private ownership, and then develop it into mining operations that pay no royalties back to the government on profits. Many conservationists have long criticized what’s known as the 1872 Mining Act as failing to value public lands rich in nature, but efforts to reform the law have, so far, failed.

So now, some groups in the west have decided that if they can’t beat the mining companies, they’ll join them. They’re using the very law they say is broken to claim public land and protect it from mining. From member station KRCC in Colorado Springs, Eric Whitney reports on the new campaign and competing bills in Congress that would re-write the old mining law.


WHITNEY: On a beautiful, sunny, Indian summer day, Amy Jiron takes a little walk in the mountains just west of Denver.

WHITNEY: Is that Mt. Evans right over there?

JIRON: I think that’s Bierstadt, actually. Yeah, that’s, I think, Bierstadt, and then if we come over here we can see Mt. Evans.

WHITNEY: This beautiful meadow on national forest land is about 30 miles from Denver is popular with hunters, hikers and ATV riders. Jiron, who works for a local mining watchdog group, says many of those people may not be aware that much of the forest is subject to privatization and development by mining companies.

JIRON: It’s our land, forest service land is our land, because we’re the taxpayers, and the people of the United States. And that our government allows that land to be utilized in such a way – it’s wrong. It needs to be fixed.

Amy Jiron at the boundary marker of a mining claim staked by environmentalists in Colorado. (Photo: Eric Whitney)

WHITNEY: Jiron is talking about the 1872 mining law which allows anyone to lay claim to huge chunks of American public lands, announce plans to mine them, and then buy them outright for five dollars an acre, the same price Congress established back in 1872. Jiron calls that ludicrous.

JIRON: The 1872 mining law really was meant to promote people with pickaxes on foot who are going to dig small tunnels, and not big, huge mines that are going to have big piles of toxic chemicals and things like that.

WHITNEY: Environmentalists, especially those in western states with lots of public lands, have been trying to change the 1872 mining law for decades. But since they’ve had no success, activists in six states have now decided to stake some mining claims themselves.

It’s pretty easy. First, identify a 20-acre parcel on a map, then go out on the land and plant stakes at its corners. File a little paperwork and a $165 fee, and you now have exclusive rights to mine the land. Or, in the case of the environmental groups, to keep anyone else from mining it.

JIRON: To protect 20 acres from being mined for $165? It’s quite a bit cheaper than what it would cost to buy the land (LAUGHS).

WHITNEY: Actually, according to law, the green groups could buy all the claims they’ve staked for only five dollars an acre. But simply filing the claims keeps anyone else from mining the land, so there’s really no need to buy it. There’s also been a moratorium on the $5 sales since 1995, when Congress agreed that the law needs to be revised.

Carol Raulston, a spokesperson for the National Mining Association, agrees that taxpayers deserve more compensation for lands privatized under the law.

RAULSTON: I think our view was it was only fair that that ought to reflect current market values.

WHITNEY: California Congressman Richard Pombo just introduced a bill that would charge mining companies a thousand dollars per acre instead of the current five. But mining companies still wouldn’t have to pay any royalties the way coal, oil and gas companies do.

Roger Flynn, an environmental attorney in Colorado, says mining companies should pay the same eight to 12 percent that energy companies do.

FLYNN: Billions of dollars have been taken out of the public lands in recent years by, particularly, the gold and copper industries, and they’ve never paid a royalty on that. And, of course, the current bill has no royalty provisions whatsoever, as well.

WHITNEY: In the 1990s, mining companies said they were willing to pay a royalty of around five percent. The Mining Association’s Raulston says they still are. A bill proposed by West Virginia Congressman Nick Rahall would require eight percent. Raulston says that would be too much.

RAULSTON: The value of the mineral is set daily on the world market so no matter where you mine it, you’re going to get the same price for it. So, if our cost of producing it gets far above our competitors’ internationally, then you’re going to see the United States becoming much more reliant upon international sources for these whole range of metals that have broad application throughout our economy.

WHITNEY: Of the two mining law reform bills currently before Congress, only Congressman Pombo’s has a realistic chance of passing this year. It’s currently attached to a larger appropriations bill as a rider. In the meantime, both environmentalists and mining companies continue to use the 1872 mining law to lay claim to tens of thousands of acres of public lands.

For Living on Earth, I’m Eric Whitney in Colorado Springs.



Westerners for Responsible Mining

National Mining Association

Western Mining Resource Center


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