House Bill Would Update 1872 Mining Law, Allow New Claims

Published January 1, 2006

The U.S. House of Representatives on November 18 approved revisions to a century-old mining law that would update the purchase price of mining claims on federal lands and rescind an 11-year moratorium on new mining claims.

The General Mining Law of 1872 allows mining companies to purchase public lands for $2.50 to $5.00 per acre upon a showing that precious minerals exist on the land. In 1994, concerned that mining companies would use the law to buy federal lands at rock-bottom prices, Congress enacted a temporary moratorium on new land sales to mining companies. Congress has voted to renew the temporary moratorium every year since 1994.

Land Prices Would Rise

Legislation proposed by Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-NV) would end the moratorium while dramatically raising the sale price of federal lands. Under the bill, federal lands would be sold to mining companies at fair market value, with no land being sold for less than $1,000 per acre. Land in national parks, wildlife refuges, national conservation areas, and national wilderness areas would be off-limits to new mining operations.

Another provision of the bill allows mining companies to purchase land upon the belief, rather than proven evidence, that there are precious minerals on the desired land. Additionally, upon completion of mining operations, companies would have the option of leaving certain improvements in place rather than being forced to return all lands to their preexisting condition. That provision is designed to allow local economies to benefit from roads, utilities, and other infrastructure built to facilitate mining operations.

“Many provisions of the 1872 Mining Law are antiquated, such as the $2.50 per acre patent price,” said Gibbons upon House approval of the bill. “Continuously suspending the patent process is not a solution, it is merely a temporary fix. In today’s budget reconciliation package, we were able to include meaningful reforms to address this longstanding problem in a manner that gives the American people a fair return on the patenting and purchase of mining lands.”

Help Local Economies

“It would be unfair to the American people if land valued higher than $1,000 per acre were sold for below market price,” Gibbons added. “Patenting and purchase of lands is absolutely vital to the health of Nevada’s rural communities because it expands the tax base of the local government, which in turn funds schools, emergency services, and other infrastructure. My amendment will help to encourage investment in domestic production and provide for the sustainability of mining dependent communities.”

“It will cost miners more to do business, but we don’t mind doing so because this will help local communities and local economies,” said Laura Skaer, executive director of the Northwest Mining Association. “We have no objections to paying a fair price for land and turning over our roads, buildings, and infrastructure to make lasting improvements to local communities after mining operations have ceased.”

Activists Want Moratorium Extension

Environmental activist groups and Congressmen sympathetic to their cause criticized the bill, preferring extensions of the moratorium on new mining operations.

“This is an unnecessary fire sale,” said Rep. Tom Udall (D-NM) in the October 27 Greenwire. “American public lands are up for sale for the first time since 1994. This takes us back to a product of the California gold rush.”

“Unfortunately, several special interest groups have dishonestly portrayed this measure as a giant land sale and giveaway to developers,” Gibbons countered in a November 17 news release. “Not only is this rhetoric false, it is an affront to the rural American families whose livelihoods depend on sustained economic development. I find that appalling. We cannot allow the scare tactics of a few anti-energy, anti-development, and anti-private property special interests to threaten thousands of American families.”

“The Gibbons amendments were developed as a result of over two years of field hearings and oversight hearings by the energy and minerals subcommittee, focusing on sustainable development in the rural West,” Skaer noted. “The amendments reflect what local school superintendents, county commissioners, etc. in the rural West seek for their communities. Forcing mining companies to destroy valuable roads, buildings, and infrastructure that benefit local communities is a counterproductive way to do business. This proposed law benefits local communities in a win-win situation.”

Whether the House bill becomes law will be determined in budget negotiations with the Senate, which passed a budget bill that did not contain the Gibbons proposal.

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.

For more information …

The Gibbons amendments to the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 are available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to, click on the PolicyBot™ button, and search for document #18190.