This legislation gave broad discretion over the use of public land resources to the private sector, requiring little in the way of public administration.The central provisions of this legislation remain intact today.
Led by environmental activists who are antagonistic to the Mining Law, critics are trying to change the present system. The result is a bitter battle that has gone on for years, with no end in sight.
The fact that a law passed in 1872 still governs mining suggests to some that reform is long overdue, and there are some legitimate criticisms of the law--primarily, the low cost of acquiring title to land and the absence of royalties paid to the government.
In other words, there is a genuine question of whether the public receives a "fair return" for the use of public land.
However, the changes that have been proposed, many in the name of environmental protection, would alter the incentives for mineral exploration and development and would lead to a decline in domestic mining.
Yet they would do little to improve environmental quality.
In fact, modifying current environmental laws would be a better way to enhance the environment around mining sites, new and old, than would changing the Mining Law itself.
The purpose of this paper is to sort out the mining-reform issues in the light of the twin goals of fostering development of the mineral resources of the United States and maintaining environmental quality.
By digging a little deeper, we can more fairly weigh the reform alternatives against the present law.
The Mining Law emerged as a product of the California Gold Rush and the other western mining booms of the mid-19th century.
Mineral deposits in the West were found predominantly on federal lands, but there was no law governing the transfer of rights to these minerals from public ownership to miners.
So miners implemented their own customs, codes and laws, which Congress codified and amended as the Mining Law of 1872.