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1872 Mining Law... Mining the Public's Lands and Pocketbook

The 1872 Mining Law, signed by President Ulysses S. Grant, was intended to promote settlement of the West. This 136 year old law declares that the extraction of minerals is the highest and best use of more than 270 million acres of public lands in the western United States.

It allows mining interests to take hardrock minerals such as copper, gold, silver and uranium from our public lands without paying any royalties to the American taxpayer. This is unlike the coal, oil and natural gas industries. Furthermore, the law also allows these lands to be purchased or patented for $5 per acre. (Since 1994 Congress has passed a yearly moratorium on new mineral patents, but that is just a temporary fix.)                              

The federal government treats mining as a right on public lands - one that trumps other uses. That means they allow mining even if it threatens special places such as Grand Canyon or pollutes important water sources such as the Colorado River. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hardrock mining is the number one polluter in the country and has contaminated the headwaters to 40 percent of our western watersheds.

Written during a time when mining was done with picks and shovels, the 1872 Mining Law does not address the problems created by modern day techniques which have the ability to remove entire mountains. The law does not address or prohibit environmental damage or threats to wildlife and watersheds. It does not provide for adequate reclamation either. 

One legacy of this outdated law is hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines. According to Earthworks, it will cost taxpayers between $32-72 billion to clean up these mines. In Arizona alone there are more than 100,000 abandoned mines, which also pose a public safety threat. 

The federal government has traditionally exercised only one method to limit mining under the 1872 Mining Law: withdrawal. Land withdrawn from the mining law is stipulated to have a special public purpose and closed to prospecting and mining.

It is way past time that we reform this antiquated law and adequately protect national treasures including Grand Canyon, important watersheds, wildlife, and the other public assets. We need a law that requires agencies to deny approval of a mining operation if it will harm human health, wildlife habitat, water resources, or sensitive lands. It should eliminate patenting of land, provide royalties to the taxpayers, and include strong reclamation standards.

For more information about the 1872 Mining Law please contact:

Sierra Club - Grand Canyon Chapter at (602) 253-8633 Thanks to our friends at Earthworks for providing some of the information for this fact sheet


Canyon Mine

Sierra Club, Grand Canyon Chapter, 202 E. McDowell Rd, Suite 277, Phoenix, AZ 85004, (602) 253-8633

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