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About mineral withdrawals and the 1872 Mining Law

Quick overview

A mineral withdrawal removes an area of federal public lands from application of the General Mining Law of 1872. It’s currently the only means to provide some level of protection for special areas of National Forest and Bureau of Land Management Public Lands from hardrock mining.

The long outdated and unjust law governs mining on approximately 350 millions acres of federal public lands, mostly in the West and Alaska. It allows mining interests, including huge multinational corporations, to develop metal mines and processing facilities on these publicly owned heritage lands and to remove any valuable minerals found for free. Hardrock minerals include platinum, gold, silver, copper and nickel. 

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory, the metal mining industry releases more toxic pollution to our land, air and water than any other industry section in the United States.

1872 Mining Law was established when Grant was President and before women had the right to vote
The 1872 Mining Law still governs mining on federal public lands in the West.

A mineral withdrawal—also known as a land withdrawal—works this way. It closes an area of federal public land to the location of new mining claims and requires holders of existing mining claims to demonstrate the claim is valid and that it complies with the laws of the United States before mining can begin. 

No other activities—such as forest restoration, grazing or recreational access—are affected by a mineral withdrawal.

Both Congress and the Secretary of Interior have the authority to withdraw federal public lands from operation of the 1872 Mining Law.

Congress can withdraw federal public lands permanently through legislation.

Secretarial withdrawals require extensive public participation and a rigorous analysis and reporting process. They can be for no longer than 20 years but can be extended if the original purpose of the withdrawal remains. However, an extension requires the same level of public participation and analysis as the initial withdrawal.

Because they’re subject to valid existing rights,  mineral withdrawals are an imperfect tool for protecting special areas of public lands, like Wild and Scenic Rivers, National Parks and Monuments and community drinking watersheds. But until there’s strong effective congressional reform of the 1872 Mining Law, they’re what’s available.  

Why are mineral withdrawals necessary?

On most National Forest and other Public Lands lands in the West, mining is still governed by the 1872 Mining Law. This outdated law allows citizens—including foreign-backed corporations—to mine federal public lands without paying rents or royalties on the valuable minerals they extract.

USEPA Toxic Release Inventory pie chart for 2017 TRI Report
According to EPA’s Toxic Release inventory, the metal mining industry was responsible for 50% of all toxic pollution in the 2017 reporting year.

While the metal mining industry extracts  the valuable minerals for free they rarely pay the costs of the pollution the mining causes. Pollution in many cases is in perpetuity. Mining also drastically change the land forever.leaving entire landscapes belonging to all Americans and future generations permanently impoverished.

The stranglehold miners hold over our public lands and communities under the 1872 Mining Law is compounded by Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) positions that unless public lands are withdrawn, the agencies cannot say “no” to a mine. 

Mineral withdrawals defined

A mineral withdrawal is a management tool for withholding an area of federal public land from the location of new mining claims, from purchase and from mining activities such as exploration and mine development. 43 U.S.C. § 1702(j); 43 C.F.R. § 2300-0-5(h). Withdrawal are subject to valid existing rights.

Withdrawals limit mining activities on the withdrawn lands in order to maintain other public values, or for reserving the land for a particular public purpose or program. These values and purposes may include protecting the quality of scientific, scenic, historical, ecological, environmental, air, water, or archaeological resources, or for other special purposes. See Forest Service Manual (FSM) 2760 (June 1, 1990) (supplemented Jan. 24, 1995).

How does a mineral withdrawal work?

Mineral withdrawals are also referred to as land withdrawals or just plain “withdrawals.” The formal language most commonly used is that the lands are “withdrawn from location and entry under the United States mining laws (30 U.S.C. Ch. 2).” It’s important to note that withdrawals, including those proposed in Southwest Oregon, are subject to valid existing rights. This savings clause, protects the rights of existing claim holders (see below).

Mineral withdrawals prohibits the location of new mining claims and require that before activities on existing claims can be approved, the claimant must demonstrate there’s been a discovery of a valuable mineral deposit on or before the date of withdrawal—in other words that the claim or claims are valid.

Mining claims, which exist prior to the date of withdrawal, can be mined if the claim holder can demonstrate that the claims were valid on the date of withdrawal and comply with the laws of the United States, including the 1872 Mining Law.

If existing claims can be mined, how does a withdrawal protect special areas from mining?

First only those existing claims, which have been found to have valid existing rights, can be mined in a withdrawn area. The benefits of a withdrawal can be seen in special places like the Smith River National Recreation Area.

When the National Recreation Area was withdrawn in 1990, there were over 5,000 existing mining claims.[2] Today, few claims are left. None have been mined and none have been found valid.” The National Wild and Scenic Smith River watershed in California is largely protected from the pollution and destruction of mining. However, in the Grand Canyon Watershed Withdrawal, some of the existing uranium claims have been found valid and are being mined. See the U.S. Forest Service’s discussion of the Canyon Mine

While withdrawals are imperfect at protecting valuable publics lands where there are existing claims, until Congress reforms the 1872 Mining Law, withdrawals are the only option the public has to protect places that are too special to mine.

What effect does a withdrawal have on other uses like recreation?

A withdrawal removes a special area of public lands from one particular use—mining. Closing an area to mining benefits all other users of public lands because mining is no longer the dominant use.

What is a valid mining claim?

A “valid” mining claim is one that’s been subject to a formal process to determine if there’s been a “discovery of a valuable mineral deposit” and if the claim meets all other requirements of the law.

At one time BLM provided a clear definition of what constitutes a valid mining claim in withdrawn areas on its website. Under the current administration these pages can no longer be found, so we look to John Leshy and The Mining Law: A Study in Perpetual Motion. Professor Leshy writes:

When lands on which mining claims have been located are withdrawn from the Mining Law discovery usually becomes the key issue for existing claims are protected only to the extent that a valid discovery has been made as of the date of withdrawal (protection is found under the savings clause for “valid existing rights” typically included in such withdrawals). In that circumstance the countervaliing interest of the United States, to preserve the purpose for which the land was withdrawn, is strong and justifies a heightened scrutiny of the existence of discovery. Page 156.

See also Walter B. Freeman v. U.S. Department of Interior, Memorandum Opinion, April 16, 2014, especially pages 4-6.

Closing public lands to mining protects communities. Rough and Ready Creek/Nicore Mine hearing in 1997.

How is it determined if there’s a “discovery of a valuable mineral deposit?”

The term “discovery of a valuable mineral deposit” has a precise meaning when applied to mining claim validity determinations in withdrawn areas. “Discovery” is also used when determining whether a mining claim is a constitutionally protected property right in takings lawsuits.

A valuable mineral deposit is one where a person of ordinary prudence would invest their money and labor, with reasonable expectations of developing a valuable mine. This is known as the “prudent person test.”

The Supreme Court added another dimension to the definition of a valuable mineral deposit—economics. Known as the “marketability test,” it requires a reasonable possibility that the minerals mined can be sold at a profit.

Equally important, there has to be the actual physical exposure (discovery) of a valuable mineral deposit on the date of withdrawal for a mining claim in a withdrawn area to be valid and for there to be a right to mine.

See BLM’s discussion of what constitutes discovery of a valuable mineral deposit.

Constitutional rights are dependent on mining claim validity.

The “subject to valid existing rights” clause that accompanies withdrawals protects a miner’s constitutional rights.[3] If an existing claim in a withdrawn area is found to be valid, it can be mined.

The District Court of the District of Columbia issued and opinion explaining that until it’s been determined that there’s been a discovery of a “valuable mineral deposit,” a claimant has only has a “gratuity” from the United States.[3] In other words, an unpatented mining claim without a validity determination is not property protected by the Constitution.

See the USDI’s explanation of valid existing rights in this press release for the withdrawal of National Forest and BLM lands around the Grand Canyon.

When is a valid existing rights determination required in a withdrawn area?

Determining a mining claim’s validity is a complicated and expensive process and can take years. However, a validity determination is only required when an individual or mining company with existing mining claims submits a mining plan of operations to conduct mining activities in a withdrawn area.

The authority to withdraw National Forest and BLM-managed lands

Congress has the authority to withdraw federal public lands from the 1872 Mining Law. This can happen through specific straightforward legislation such as the North Fork Watershed Protection Act, which was signed into law in December of 2014, to protect part of the Flathead River in Montana, or in more fully protective legislation, which automatically withdraws designated areas from mining.

Congress also granted the Secretary of Interior authority to temporarily withdraw public lands under the Federal Land Policy and Act of 1976 (FLPMA). A withdrawal under FLPMA is known as a secretarial withdrawal. It can be for no longer than 20 years but can be extended. Seventeen miles of the Wild and Scenic Chetco River were temporarily withdrawn under the FLPMA withdrawal authority in 2013.

Finally, the President can withdraw federal lands under the Antiquities Act.

Southwest Oregon Mineral Withdrawal was overwhelmingly supported by the public
Over the course of three public comment periods and three local hearings, over 99% of participants supported the Obama Administration’s 20-year Southwest Oregon Mineral Withdrawal.

Secretarial withdrawals under Federal Land Policy and Management Act

Because the BLM manages the minerals found on National Forests and BLM lands, withdrawals by the Secretary of Interior (under FLPMA) are processed by the BLM under the agency’s withdrawal regulations at 43 CFR subpart 2310.

Under FLPMA, withdrawals are broadly defined as:

Withholding an area of Federal land from settlement, sale, location, or entry, under some or all of the general land laws, for the purpose of limiting activities under those laws in order to maintain other public values in the area or reserving the area for a particular public purpose or program. USC , vol. 48, section, 1702(j).

Testifying before the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors in opposition to the Cleopatra Mine Project in the Oregon half of the North Fork Smith watershed.

The process for a secretarial withdrawal begins when one or more federal land managing agencies submit an application to the BLM to withdraw an area.

If the application is accepted, a notice is published in the Federal Register for the proposed withdrawal. The notice temporarily closes (segregates) the area to new mining for two years while the analysis is completed and paperwork for the withdrawal is submitted to the Secretary of Interior for approval or disapproval.

Opportunities for public participation

The Federal Register Notice announcing a proposed withdrawal begins the public’s opportunity for comment. There’s also opportunity for public participation during the environmental analysis phase required by the National Environmental Policy Act. Most withdrawals require one or more public hearings.

The recent Southwest Oregon withdrawal process included three opportunities for written public comment totaling 210 days and three local public hearings.

Background | the 1872 Mining Law giveaway

Under the 1872 Mining Law the valuable minerals found on National Forest and BLM-managed land are given away, whether to individuals or multinational corporations. And under the patenting provision of the 1872 Mining Law the lands is given away too.  These are huge subsidies to the mining industry.  According to Earthworks:

“Federal public lands open to mining and acquisition under the General Mining Act of 1872 constitutes more than 15% of all the land in the United States, or two thirds of the lands the federal government holds in trust for all Americans (emphasis added).”

But that’s not the end of the subsidies. Many mines become Superfund sites, with the taxpayer footing the bill for cleanup.

This page was updated on 6/16.2018..

1872 miner


[1] According to the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest in the Preliminary Decision Memo for the RF-38 Test Drill for the Red Flat Nickel Corporation at Red Flat in the headwaters of Hunter Creek:

Under [the General Mining Law of 1872] and related case law, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service has no authority to prohibit an otherwise reasonable plan of operations for such mining (i.e., one that can be characterized as the logical next step in the orderly development of a mine).

[2] See preamble to Surface Mining Regulations for the Smith River National Recreation Area.

[3] An explanation of what constitutes a valid mining claim—one that’s a property right against the United States and is protected by the 5th Amendment of the Constitution—is found in Walter B. Freeman v. U.S. Department of Interior, Memorandum Opinion, April 17, 2014, pages 4-6.

Ore haul truck proposed for use at Rough and Ready Creek in RNR Resources 2011 Plan of Operations.

The case concerns BLM’s findings that the Rough and Ready Creek/Nicore mining claims were not valid in 1994 and 2000. In short the District Court of the District of Columbia found that a mining claim that has not been subject to a validity determination is only a “potential property interest.” Citing Supreme Court rulings, the District of Columbia, District Court found that:

An unpatented mining claim is valid against the United States only when both a discovery of valuable mineral deposit within the limits of the claim has been made, and the claimant has complied with all statutory and regulatory requirements relating to the location, recordation, and filing of claims.

If an existing mining claim in a withdrawn area is valid, then the claimant’s right to mine is unaffected. Therefore, any potential constitutional rights an existing claim holder may have are protected.

Update 5/12/2016 – The District of Columbia Court of Appeals upheld all of the the District Court’s findings on April 29, 2016. The opinion is unpublished but can be accessed through PACER. To request a copy use our contact form.

Additional reading on the 1872 Mining Law and withdrawals