Time to stop mining like it’s 1872

Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar said this week that updating the General Mining Act of 1872 will be among his top priorities over the coming year.

Good luck with that, Mr. Secretary.

For at least 30 years now, various members of Congress have tried in vain to update the law that was passed shortly after the Civil War ended. That law was designed to encourage development of minerals in the West by allowing mining interests to obtain ownership of federal lands once they have held them for a period of time and made improvements to recoverable mineral deposits. They can obtain title to the lands by paying a small fee per acre.

The law applies only to minerals such as gold, silver, copper and uranium. It does not apply to things like coal, oil and natural gas. In fact, those who extract coal oil or gas from public lands pay royalties to the federal government, and they don’t get to become owners of the land.

We have long believed that a similar system should apply for minerals such as gold, silver and uranium. There is no reason mining firms should be able to obtain title to limited federal lands in the 21st century due to a law passed in the mid-19th century, when the government was eager to dispose of public lands.

There must be a way to allow the minerals to be extracted profitably, without turning the lands over to mining companies. That does occasionally still happen, even if it’s nothing like the legal land grabs that occurred during the heyday of hard-rock mining in the West.

But, given the current economic conditions, and the fact that mining, like most other industries, is struggling in many areas, we suspect there won’t be a great deal more enthusiasm for changing the law now than there was 30 years ago.


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