The Time Has Come to Reform Outdated Mining Laws


1872 saw the birth of a law that has governed American mining for over a century. It is the General Mining Act of 1872. While amendments have been made to the 1872 Act, we are still governed by what some would call “outdated” policy.

“We must find an approach to modernize the General Mining Law of 1872 and ensure that development occurs in a manner consistent with the needs of mining and the protection of the public, our public lands, and water resources,” said Interior Secretary Salazar today Before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

With an economic crisis knocking at the front door and an energy crisis knocking at the back, the Department of Interior is working to responsibly balance development of conventional energy sources and the accelerated development of clean, renewable energy while at the same time protecting the treasured landscapes, wildlife, and cultural resources that claim America as their home.

It is finding such balance that has led Secretary Salazar to take another look at the 19th century policy. “While the responsible development of our mineral resources is critical to both our economy and our environment, this statute has not been updated in 137 years,” he said. And much has changed since then.

The 1872 Act allowed “any citizen of the country to explore public domain lands for valuable minerals, to stake a claim if the mineral could be extracted at a profit, and to patent the claim.” A lot of freedom was granted under this Act, and it had a huge influence in the founding of the West because of the freedom it entailed.

According to the BLM, an average of approximately 76,000 new mining claims are staked annually. And these claims are responsible for almost $60 million in federal revenue, coming mostly from the fees collected by BLM.

With an average of 76,000 mining claims staked annually, the impact on the environment has potential to be severe. Landscapes can be ruined. Abandoned mines can become eyesores. That is why “the environmental consequences of modern mining practices must be addressed in meaningful and substantive ways” as reform takes place.

Salazar suggests that “American taxpayers should receive a fair return for the extraction of these valuable resources and should expect the federal government to develop a reliable process providing for the cleanup and restoration of lands where the responsible party is unable or unavailable to do so, including a Good Samaritan provision.”

And now the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2009 sits on the committee table, waiting. With the passage of this Act, permits would be required to engage in the following activities on federal land: (1) mineral activities that would disturb surface resources, including land, air, water, and fish and wildlife; and (2) exploration and mineral activities that involve more than casual use of the land.

It will also establish the Hardrock Minerals Reclamation Fund for the reclamation and restoration of land and water resources adversely affected in the past by mines and mining activities that are now abandoned.

To read a full text of Salazar’s address, click here.

Photo Credit: wallyg via flickr under Creative Commons License

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