Mining Claims For Minerals


            A Mineral Mining Claim allows a miner access to a vein or lode of valuable minerals. The minerals, which may exist on or below the surface of a land parcel, are then owned by the miner who has with the right to occupy and mine in a manner prescribed by law.  Mining claims are allowed on federal lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

            There are two types of claims. A patented mining claim is one for which the Federal Government has passed its title to the claimant, making it private land. A mineral patent gives the owner exclusive title to the locatable minerals. It also gives the owner title to the surface and other resources.  With a Patented Claim, you own the land as well as the minerals (1).

            An unpatented mining claim is a particular parcel of Federal land, valuable for a specific mineral deposit or deposits. It is a parcel for which an individual has asserted a right of possession. The right is restricted to the extraction and development of a mineral deposit. The rights granted by a mining claim are valid against a challenge by the United States and other claimants only after the discovery of a valuable mineral deposit.  With an unpatented claim, you are leasing, from the government, the right to extract minerals. No land ownership is conveyed.

            With the above mineral claims, geologic deposits are divided into two types.

            Lode claim deposits include classic veins or “lodes” having well-defined boundaries. They also include other rocks that may contain valuable minerals in wide zones of mineralized rock. Examples of lode deposits include quartz or other veins bearing gold or other metallic minerals, and large volume but low-grade disseminated metallic deposits.

            Placer claim deposits include all those deposits not subject to lode claims. Originally, these included only deposits of unconsolidated materials, such as sand and gravel, containing free gold or other minerals. However, by Congressional acts and judicial interpretations, many nonmetallic bedded or layered deposits, such as gypsum and high calcium limestone, are also considered placer deposits (1).



Bureau of Land Management


            The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is part of the United States Department of the Interior. The purpose of the BLM is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of America’s public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations. It administers more public land, over 245 million surface acres, than any other Federal agency in the United States. Most of this land is located in the 12 Western states, including Alaska. The BLM also manages 700 million acres of sub-surface mineral deposits throughout the nation (2).

            The Mining Law of 1872 governs mining claims and sites located on Federal lands.  It declared that public lands that are open to mineral-entry be available for development and extraction of metallic and nonmetallic minerals by United States citizens. The law also encourages mining companies to initiate exploration and development of such minerals.  The BLM is responsible for the issuance and monitoring of mineral mining claims. Before mining can begin on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, a company or individual must file a plan with the BLM.

            In addition to issuing and overseeing mining claims, BLM sells mineral materials to the public at fair market value and gives them free to states, counties, or other government entities for public projects. Also a limited amount may be provided free to non-profit groups. Materials obtained free of charge cannot be bartered or sold.  BLM shares a portion of the revenues from the sale of mineral materials is shared with the state where the minerals are produced.


Solid Leasable Minerals


            The Bureau of Land Management leases certain solid minerals, like phosphate, sodium, and potassium, on public and other Federal lands. These lands include areas managed by the BLM and the Forest Service. BLM can also lease these minerals on certain private lands, provided that the mineral rights are owned by the Federal government (3).

            Most of the minerals leased under this program are used to make fertilizer and as feedstock for other industrial processes. In some areas where the Federal government has acquired the land, BLM leases base and precious metals under this program.

            BLM issues leases in two different ways for solid leasable minerals other than coal and oil shale. One is competitive leases issued in areas where there are known mineral deposits. The other is competitive leases issued through a bidding process.

            BLM will issue prospecting permits in areas where they do not know a mineral deposit exists. In a prospecting scenario, BLM may issue a lease to that permittee without competition. Before issuing any lease, BLM considers the comprehensive land use plan for the area and environmental concerns.

            One example of a solid leasable mineral is phosphate. Phosphorus is an important industrial commodity and an essential nutrient for all life, including agricultural crops. Phosphates are used in an array of products, from baked goods and personal care products to fertilizers, textiles and electronics, among others. The Western Phosphate Field in southeastern Idaho is the largest remaining phosphate deposit in the U.S. This is BLM’s largest and most complex non-energy leasable minerals program land.

            Another example of a solid leasable mineral is Potash. Potash, and byproduct salt, are produced from Federal leases in southeastern New Mexico. The principal use of potash is as an agricultural fertilizer (plant nutrient) because it is a source of soluble potassium, which is one of the three primary plant nutrients required for plant growth and maturation. The remainder is used in chemicals and pharmaceuticals, salt substitutes, soap, matches, glass, and storage batteries.

            Potash exists in New Mexico because in the geologic past, a broad and shallow inland sea covered much of the southwestern United States, extending northward from west Texas into northwestern Kansas. Slow but continual subsidence beneath all parts of this vast basin caused deposition of a thick sequence of red beds and evaporites, including dolomite, gypsum, anhydrite, salt, and potash. Portions of the basin in southeast New Mexico contain commercial deposits of potash, known as the Carlsbad Mining District. The potash deposits were discovered in 1925, and the first commercial production occurred in 1931 (4).

            In 2013, there were 126 Federal potash leases covering 161,000 acres in the state of New Mexico. This includes three active conventional underground mines operated by two companies. Further, the BLM issued a Record of Decision approving the development of a solution mine to recover remaining potash ore from previous conventionally mined underground workings, known as the HB Solar Solution Mine Project.

Mineral Material


            Mineral materials include common varieties of sand, gravel, stone, pumice, cinders and clay. Individuals, companies, nonprofit organizations or governmental entities may not remove mineral materials from BLM administered lands, or from split estate lands where the U.S. Government reserved all minerals, without first having obtained a sale or permit authorized by the appropriate BLM Field Office. The removal of mineral materials under sale or permit is commonly referred to as a “disposal”.

            Anyone interested in mineral materials from a particular area of public lands should review the appropriate land use plan to be sure the area is open to mineral material disposal. Even if an area is open to mineral material disposal by the land use plan, there may be other limitations such as the presence of mining claims. If the land of interest is unencumbered, consider pre-application testing and sampling to be sure the material is of a quality and quantity to meet an applicant’s needs (5). Applications for an authorization to sample and test, for a sale or for a free use permit are usually handled on a first come, first served basis. Mineral material disposals are discretionary.

            Mineral materials can usually be found on or near the surface of the public lands. It may be necessary to perform drilling or trenching to determine the quality and quantity of the deposit, particularly when mineral materials are covered by soil or vegetation. The materials may need to be sampled and tested to determine if they are suitable for certain uses. These activities must be authorized in writing (Letter of Authorization) by BLM. Bonding and reclamation requirements may be imposed on sampling and testing activities, and the findings must be submitted to the BLM.

            Reclamation is a requirement after any surface-disturbing activity. The reclamation of disturbed sites is required to ensure that the public land can later be used for other purposes. Reclamation includes removing all surface debris, recontouring, reducing steep slopes, and restoring vegetation to the site. All reclamation proposals must conform to BLM standards (6).

            In many instances, the BLM has established community pits and common use areas for construction materials. Generally, community pits and common use areas are close to communities and are easily accessible for the convenience of the public. Community pits involve more concentrated disturbance than common areas. The BLM develops mining and reclamation plans for the community pits and coordinates disposals and operations. No one contractor has exclusive rights to the mineral materials in a community pit or common use area. Common use areas usually cover larger areas than community pits and typically involve less intensive surface disturbance. Also, the designation of a common use area does not establish a superior right to the use of the land against other claims or uses, as occurs with the designation of a community pit.


Mining Methods Used to Extract Minerals

There are four main mining methods used to extract minerals: underground, open surface (pit), placer, and in-situ mining (7).

            Underground mines are expensive and are often used to reach deeper deposits. Many forms of underground mining exist, however, every underground mine is similar in that it requires a point of entrance from the surface. This entry may be through a vertical or horizontal tunnel. The average underground mine will include a number of roughly horizontal levels that branch off at various depths from the main point of entry into the mine. In an underground mine, ore and minerals are extracted in stopes or rooms. Sometimes material, known as a pillar, is left behind to support the mine ceiling and then later recovered when mining is completed. Providing support to the roof is key in the prevention of falling rock, which is one the potential dangers of any underground mining operation. In the past, roof support consisted of bracing the roof of the mine with timber and eventually concrete. Ore was also mined mostly by hand with picks and shovels and then hauled back up to the surface by cart using a rudimentary hoisting system or small horses known as pit ponies (8).

            Today, underground mining exists as a highly mechanized operation. Supporting the mine roof is accomplished using both temporary and permanent steel supports or, most commonly, by bolting the roof of the mine using roof-bolting equipment. Ore is mined using a wide selection of specialized cutting and drilling equipment such as continuous miner and rock drills. Once extracted, the ore is hauled from the slope or room back up to the surface by rubber-tired vehicles known as shuttle car or by a conveyor belt system.


            Surface Mines are typically used for shallow, less valuable deposits. Surface mining is the process of extracting minerals and ores located in close proximity to the surface of the earth. Today, surface mining is the largest sector of mining in existence, accounting for over 60 percent of all materials mined. Most mines start off as surface mines because it is more cost-effective and poses less danger. When the cost of excavating and removing the waste that must be mined for each ton of ore extracted becomes too great, underground mining methods are generally deployed.

Though surface mining encompasses a broad range of mining methods, one common denominator is the removal of overburden using heavy earthmoving machinery. Once the overburden has been removed, large dragline excavators are used to extract the minerals or ore from the earth. Other common types of equipment used in surface mining include wheel loaders, wheel dozers, crawler tractors, motor graders, and heavy-duty dump trucks such as rock trucks and articulated dump trucks (9).

            After a surface mine is depleted, an area called a spoil bank is often left behind. The spoil bank consists of material that was removed or processed to obtain minerals.  This is the downside of surface mining because most spoil piles have onerous environmental effects, such as acid mine drainage. A large part of good surface mining practices today involves implementing a land rehabilitation or land reclamation program in conjunction with mining operations. Modern mining laws seek a balance between good mining practices and the implementation of a beneficial land reclamation program.

            Placer Mining is used to sift out valuable metals from sediments in river channels, beach sands, or other environments. Placer mining was especially popularized in the framework of the many gold rushes that started in North America. During these Gold Rushes, scores of prospectors panned for gold in creeks, streams, and riverbeds. Dirt from the riverbed was scooped into a pan and then swirled around the water and dirt, eventually pouring the water out. The gold would remain at the bottom of the pan because it was heavier than other debris. Panning became the most common and simplest method of placer mining.

            In streams that yielded a number of gold nuggets, a prospector would use a device called a rocker, a long box that water and dirt were shoveled into. The box was then rocked back and forth, similar to panning, mixing the water and dirt together. The mixture of water and dirt then spilled out at the other end of the box, leaving behind any gold. Sluices were also used in the placer mining of gold. The sluice was a wooden channel or trough through which water flowed down, which had levers to control water flow. Other equipment commonly used in placer mining included shovels and picks (10).

            The practice of placer mining did not fade away with the Gold Rush. The method is still deployed today as certain mineral types such as gold, tungsten, and tin are still located on or close to the ground’s surface.

            In-Situ Mining, which is primarily used in mining uranium, involves dissolving the mineral resource in place and recovering the minerals from it by dissolving them and pumping the pregnant solution to the surface where the minerals can be recovered. Consequently there is little surface disturbance and no tailings or waste rock generated. However, the ore body needs to be permeable to the liquids used, and located so that they do not contaminate groundwater away from the ore body.

Minerals and Mining Act


            The General Mining Act of 1872 is a United States federal law that authorizes and governs prospecting and mining for economic minerals, such as gold, platinum, and silver, on federal public lands. This law, approved on May 10, 1872, codified the informal system of acquiring and protecting mining claims on public land, formed by prospectors in California and Nevada from the late 1840s through the 1860s, such as during the California Gold Rush. All citizens of the United States of America 18 years or older have the right under the 1872 mining law to locate a lode (hard rock) or placer (gravel) mining claim on federal lands open to mineral entry. These claims may be located once a discovery of a locatable mineral is made. Locatable minerals include but are not limited to platinum, gold, silver, copper, lead, zinc, uranium and tungsten (11).

            On November 1, 2007, the US House passed the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2007 by a vote of 244-116. The bill would have permanently ended new patents for mining claims, imposed a royalty of 4% of gross revenues on existing mining extracting from unpatented mining claims, and placed an 8% royalty on new mining operations. Mining of private mineral rights (including patented mining claims) would not have been affected. Seventy percent of the royalty money would have gone to a cleanup fund for past abandoned mining operations, and 30% to affected communities. The National Mining Association maintained that, in combination with existing federal, state, and local taxes, the royalty imposed by the bill would have burdened US mining with the highest effective tax rate in the world. The bill was not acted upon by the Senate, and died at the end of the 110th Congress in January 2009.

            A subsequent bill, The Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2009 was introduced into the US Senate but died in committee. The proposed bill provided that the secretary of the interior will establish a royalty rate of from 8% to 15% of the value of locatable mineral production from any new mines on federal mineral lands. Mines in production on the date of the bill’s enactment would not be subject to the royalty. In addition, a reclamation tax of from 0.3% to 1%, the rate set by the secretary of the interior, would be levied on all hardrock mining operations, new and existing, on federal, state, private, and tribal lands. The royalties and reclamation taxes would be used to reclaim abandoned hardrock mines.

            In summary then, the 1872 General Mining Act is still the governing law of the land for BLM lands. Properties out of the BLM jurisdiction are generally monitored by state laws. Almost all laws now require miners to file a permit application and post a surety bond to guarantee restoration of the land.


(1).  Mine What is a Mining Claim, Legally?

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(2) U.S. Department of the Interior. The Bureau of Land Management. Who we are, What we do.

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(3) U.S. Department of the Interior. The Bureau of Land Management. Mineral Materials

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(4). U.S. Department of the Interior. The Bureau of Land Management. Potash.

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(5) U.S. Department of the Interior. The Bureau of Land Management. Mineral Materials; sand, gravel stone, etc.

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(6) U.S. Department of the Interior. The Bureau of Land Management. Mineral Materials

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(7) American Geoscience Institute. What are the main methods of mining?

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(8) RitchieWiki. Everything about equipment. Underground Mining.

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(9) RitchieWiki. Everything about equipment. Surface Mining.

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(10) RitchieWiki. Everything about equipment. Placer Mining.

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(11) Wikipedia. General Mining Act of 1872.

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