The General Mining Act of 1872 regulates gold, silver, cinnabar, copper, and “other valuable deposits.” Despite some amendments, this legislation still governs extraction of many nonenergy minerals, in particular hardrock locatable minerals on federal public domain lands.
The Minerals Leasing Act of 1920 limited the scope of the 1872 Act, providing different regulations for energy-producing minerals such as coal, oil, and natural gas. The Acquired Lands Mineral Leasing Act of 1947 and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 govern mining on acquired lands.
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Hardrock mining on federal public domain lands takes place primarily in the western U.S. Certain federal lands – such as wildlife refuges – are not open for mining.
While some hardrock mineral leasing occurs on federal acquired lands, the vast majority of hardrock mining on federal lands occurs on public domain lands through the claim-staking process, which was originally outlined in the 1872 General Mining Act to encourage settlement in the West. Royalties are collected on the production of leases on acquired lands, but generally not rents because the mineral lease and terms accompany the land when it is acquired by the federal government.
If deposits are not known, interested parties can obtain prospecting permits to explore on federal lands on a first-come, first-serve basis. Claiming federal lands for hardrock mining falls into two categories: deposits with well-defined boundaries are called “lode claims” and all others are called “placer claims.” Each state has unique requirements for the process of marking the boundaries of a mining area, which is called claim staking. Once a prospector stakes a claim, the prospector documents it by filing required forms at the BLM field office and with the county clerk.
All mining claims are initially unpatented claims that permit only those activities necessary for exploration and mining and require the claim to be worked every year. The original 1872 General Mining Act allowed miners to acquire patents to purchase mining claims on federal lands for any legal use. Prospectors could purchase federal lands for $5 per acre for lode claims and $2.50 per acre for placer claims. Congress prohibited this practice through moratorium in 1994; the moratorium has been renewed annually through the Interior Appropriations Acts.
The exploration process for hardrock minerals differs depending on where developers are conducting their exploration. On public domain land, developers explore for minerals before staking a claim. Under the 1872 General Mining Act, developers cannot stake a claim until they discover a deposit of valuable minerals. Developers pay claim-staking fees to BLM after making a discovery.
On acquired lands, developers pay a Prospecting Permit Fee to BLM and pay rent to ONRR during the exploration phase.
To extract hardrock minerals, miners must comply with federal and local regulations. Miners cannot construct any permanent or mobile structures or store equipment without the prior approval of an authorized federal official.
For development and production activities that do not require earthmoving equipment or explosives, miners must submit a notice or Plan of Operations. These actions are processed at the local level, because many states have their own laws and regulations regarding environmental factors such as air and water pollution, use of hazardous materials, or use of suction dredges. Additionally, construction activities must comply with county codes and state public health and safety standards.
Miners must pay an annual maintenance fee to BLM for each site. Small scale operators may file for a waiver stating that $100 worth of improvement work has been completed annually.
Decommission and reclaim
In 1981, BLM issued regulations requiring miners to remove all facilities and return the land to a sound environmental state. In 2001, BLM expanded on these regulations, requiring miners to provide bonds or other financial reassurances regarding reclaiming the land before exploring or mining.