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Miners Fight To Save 1872 Law, Public Land Claims at $2.50 per Acre

December 6, 1990

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) _ Miners are fighting congressional efforts to reform an 1872 law allowing them to claim public land for $2.50 an acre. Opponents say it’s a relic of the Old West that makes modern land-grabbing easy.

Supporters argue that changing the law could put thousands of miners out of work and cripple one of the nation’s basic industries.

″The mining industry is in trouble. It’s in deep trouble in the Congress of the United States,″ said Bill Grannell, executive director of the Western States Public Lands Coalition in Pueblo, Colo.

The coalition of miners, logging interests and ranchers who use federal land, mostly in the West, has launched a petition drive to preserve the Mining Law of 1872.

The law allows hardrock miners to stake claims on public land, pay no royalties on extracted minerals and obtain title to claims for as little as $2.50 an acre.

Hardrock minerals include gold, silver, uranium, copper, lead and zinc. The U.S. Bureau of Mines says there are about 130,000 active hardrock miners nationwide.

The law was designed to promote mineral exploration and development on federal land, which covers 724 million acres, mostly in 11 Western states and Alaska. It applies to everyone from lone prospectors to major mining companies.

Reform proponents say they will introduce legislation in Congress to make miners pay royalties similar to those paid by companies that lease land from the government to extract oil, coal and natural gas.

Sen. Dale Bumpers, D-Ark., will submit a bill like one he pushed last session, and Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., will bring a similar bill to the House, aides said.

The bills would end the so-called patent provision that allows miners to work the land and eventually obtain title to it at 1872 prices - $2.50 to $5.00 an acre.

Under the current law, prospectors need to have spent $500 on a claim to qualify for a land patent. Critics of patenting cite a 1989 General Accounting Office report that cited abuses and huge private and corporate profits.

In one example, holders of the title to 17,000 acres near Grand Junction, Colo., several years ago paid the government $42,500 for the land, then turned around weeks later and sold it to major oil companies for $37 million.

The GAO said one 40-acre site near Mesa, Ariz., patented in 1983 for $100, is now valued at $400,000.

The Bumpers bill also would charge miners royalty fees and require them to post large bonds to guarantee their ability to repair any environmental damage.

Miners say boosting their costs that much would force many out of business.

In 118 years, more than 6 million mining claims have been filed with the government, and 1.2 million are still active. Nevada has the most, 370,000. Arizona has 143,000, Utah 113,000, Colorado 80,255 and Alaska 32,000.

Miners have obtained title to 84,000 acres in Colorado, mostly in oil shale deposits. They gained title to 11,158 acres in Nevada, 14,475 in Montana, 16,796 in Wyoming and 8,406 in Alaska.

″Mining is destroying a lot of public land in this country,″ said Laura Lapins of the Mineral Policy Center in Washington, which is pushing for reforms.

The law enacted during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant doesn’t fit in a modern world where the wilderness is disappearing and environmental damage is mounting, said Dave Alberswerth of the National Wildlife Federation.

″That law is simply an anachronism in this day and age,″ he said. ″It is the last remaining land disposal act on the books.″

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