In 1848 gold was discovered in California. Thousands raced across the continent to stake claims on the treasure. Then other strikes were made. There was silver in Nevada, gold in the Dakotas, lead in Colorado. The problem was that most of these mineral finds were happening on Federal lands. There was no uniform procedure for the transfer of property from the United States government to private hands so the miners developed their own laws and customs for claiming mineral rights.
To rectify this untenable situation, Congress passed the Mining Law of 1872. The Mining Law of 1872 grants both citizens and companies the right to explore for Hardrock minerals and establish rights to federal lands without authorization from any government agency. This standard of free access is the basis of the Mining Law, which remains the law of the land today.
The cost of these rights is surprisingly small. Claimants can acquire outright title to both public land and mineral rights by obtaining a mineral patent at a cost of from $2.50 to $5.00 per acre. For more than 100 years all claimants needed to do to maintain mining rights were to satisfy an annual work requirement. In 1992 Congress assessed a holding fee of $100 per year but that is the only fee claimant risk for their mineral speculation. Any successful claimant does not pay any royalties on minerals pulled from public lands.
Today, there are more than 300,000 active mining claims, mostly from large mining firms, on record with the administering agency, the Bureau of Land Management. Mining claims can be located on federal lands in 19 states: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. The sum total of federal lands in these states, excluding National Parks and other protected areas, under the claim is less than 2 percent of available land but it is estimated that nine out of ten of these most promising sites will be abandoned as unproductive and never fully mined.
But what if you stumble across a piece of rock you believe could lead to a valuable mineral found on one of those unclaimed acres? How do you go about filing a mining claim?
There are two types of mineral claims open to prospectors: lode claims and placer claims. A lode claim is the classic vein of valuable mineral in a defined boundary of rock. Placer claims are all claims not confined in a lode such as loose sand or gravel. The maximum size for a placer claim is 20 acres.
Once you identify a site, you must literally stake your claim by erecting corner posts or monuments and posting a notice of location on a post or monument in a conspicuous place, normally the site of discovery. The exact procedures of staking a claim are governed by state law and can vary marginally from location to location. These requirements can be found in the county clerkÕs office, where the claim must be filed.
In addition to filing with the individual state, all claims must be recorded with the Bureau of Land Management state office. There are no official forms and the claim must simply describe the parcel of ground, indicate ownership, identify the location and type of claim, and be dated. There is a $10 filing fee and a $25 location fee. Also due at the time of the claim is the first annual $100 maintenance fee, the calendar year of which runs from September 1 to September 1. The total due per claim is $135.
Once a mining claim has been approved the claimant gains the right to develop and extract minerals. No other use of the land is permissible. In the pursuit of minerals, the claimant can construct fences, build houses for full-time employees, and use as much timber as is necessary for the mining operation. Mining claims are considered real property and as such can be bought, sold, transferred, leased, rented, willed, or inherited.
Individuals can get the $100 annual maintenance fee waived if they own 10 or fewer active claims, the so-called “small miner” waiver. In lieu of the maintenance fee, a work assessment may also be granted if $100 of improvement work has been done to the land. Such work can include drilling, sampling, road construction, or land surveys.
The Mining Law also provides for the patenting of mining claims whereby actual title of the land is passed from the Federal government to private ownership at the rate of $5 an acre for placer claims and $2.50 an acre for lode claims. The claimant is required to demonstrate the existence of valuable mineral deposits on the land. However, the Interior and Related Agencies Appropriation Act of 1994 has included a moratorium on new mineral patent applications.
In the United States today, almost 2/3 of all mining claims are held by claimants owning between one and ten claims. You could be one of them.