Friday, May 03, 2013

The Forest Service battles placer mining with an obscure law

The Forest Service's ability to deny mining proposals is severely limited by the 1872 General Mining Law, a frontier remnant that prioritizes mining above all other land uses. But another, little-known law gives it a straightforward way to prevent mining in at least a few locations. The Mining Claims Rights Restoration Act of 1955 lets the federal government challenge placer mining in locations that it once reserved as potential hydropower sites. And on the North Fork, the law is giving the Forest Service the upper hand. "We wouldn't be doing any of this (contesting placer mining) if it were under the regular old 1872 mining law," says Hughes. The Department of Interior began reserving certain river-valley public lands for hydropower development in 1909, as dam building in the West was revving up. In these "power site withdrawals," mining was restricted. But in 1955, as dam-site exploration slowed, the Mining Claims Rights Restoration Act eased the restrictions, with a caveat: The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management could reject placer mining if it would "substantially interfere with other uses" like recreation. Although the law applies to more than 7 million acres of public land -- roughly three times the size of Yellowstone -- it hasn't come up often because placer mining techniques like panning are generally low-impact, and because relatively few claims fall in these sites...more

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