Mining Claims

Introduction: Why Stake a Claim?

Suppose you’re hiking around on a piece of land in the western United States somewhere. You’ve heard its government land, some Bureau of Land Management thing, but not really sure what that means. Anyway, it’s a nice day and you find a stream to hang out by while you have lunch. While looking at the water ripple and gurgle over some river stones, the Sun’s rays glint off something golden and shiny. You investigate. It’s a pretty heavy pebble of something. You put in you’re knapsack, continue the day and head home. After you get home, you take you’re shiny pebble out, and do some simple tests that you’ve read about. It scratches with a knife. You hit it with a hammer and it spreads out rather than breaks. You conclude: “I’ve found Gold!!”

The question is: now what do you do? If you try to cash in, will you get in trouble with the government? Is there more gold out there by the stream? Can I take that too?

Well, believe it or not, you might be able to “stake a claim” and mine any gold resources in that area for yourself. In doing so, you have claimed the right to mine the resources in that area and no one else can.

This is the reason why people stake mining claims, which may be done on special federal lands controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) administers over 258 million acres of public lands and 700 million acres of subsurface minerals nationwide. BLM is responsible for the management of these lands, their resources, and their various values, with focus placed on what will best serve the needs of the American people (1).

Although many of the thousands of claims that exist have been extensively mined, staking claims, or purchasing an existing claim for sale, are potentially there for anyone. You don’t necessarily have to be a big mining company or overtly rich. You just need some operational knowledge.

Types of Claims and How They Work

There are 19 states, mainly in the western United States, where federal lands are open to mining through the Bureau of Land Management. There are two types of mining claims, patented and unpatented claims that cover two types of deposits, lode and placer.

With a patented land claim you own the land outright and you can do what you want with the land. For example, you can build a cabin on it and live there. Many mine sites are held with patents. Patented mining sites are generally expensive, but they also hold a high resale value. All mining claims that were patented were surveyed prior to patent. These surveys are known as mineral surveys and records of these surveys are currently kept on microfiche by the Bureau of Land Management (2). One of the downsides of patented sites is you are liable for the mines: clean up, environmental impact, attractive nuisance and public access problems might be some things you have to deal with.

With unpatented claims one owns the mining rights only. All buildings on an unpatented claim must be mobile, or pre-existing. With a plan of operations you can fence off your site to keep the public out as well. With the rate the federal agencies are declaring Wilderness areas, mining claims might also become a limited commodity, at least those mining claims that covers good, solid, producing mines.

With regard to deposit type, Lodes include, classic gold bearing quartz veins or “lodes”. They also include other rock in place that may hold valuable minerals and may be broad zones of mineralized rock. Further the deposit could contain other metallic minerals. Lode claims are usually described by metes and bounds surveys (giving length and direction of each boundary line). Federal statute limits their size to a maximum of 1,500 feet in length along the vein or lode. Their width is a maximum of 600 feet, 300 feet on either side of the centerline of the vein or lode (3).

Placer deposits include all other deposits. Originally, these included only deposits of unconsolidated materials, such as sand and gravel, containing free gold or other minerals. By Congressional acts and judicial interpretations, many nonmetallic bedded or layered deposits, such as gypsum and high calcium limestone, are also considered placer deposits.

Types of Sites and Controversies

On Bureau of Land Management Lands (BLM), mining operations fall into one of three types of sites: Casual Use, Notice Operations, and Plan-Level Operations. The degree of environmental damage to the site is generally commensurate with the level of activity. From least damaging to worst, they are as follows.

Casual Use operations are expected to have negligible cumulative effects on the land. A miner need not notify the BLM before engaging in casual use operations. This includes collecting rock and mineral specimens.

Notice Level Operations include only exploration activities in which five or less acres of disturbance are proposed. All operators conducting operations at the Notice level must post an appropriate financial guarantee for their operation.

Plans–Level Operations include all mining and processing activities (regardless of the size of proposed disturbance), plus all other activities exceeding five acres of proposed public land disturbance. A Plan of Operation is also needed for any bulk sampling in which 1,000 tons or more of presumed ore for testing is proposed for removal. All operators conducting operations at the Plan of Operation level must post a financial guarantee for their operation (4).

There is much controversy surrounding current and abandoned mining claims on BLM land, mostly regarding environmental damage to land. One legacy of the still intact 1872 mining law, which allows procurement of mining claims, is the lack of environmentally conscious enforcement for mining methods and after mining reclamation. At this point in time, most claims have been staked out, played out, and sold and resold over time. Their condition is an environmental disaster with regard to acid mine drainage and water pollution.

Modern mining methods have left the West pockmarked by “craters”, some so large that they are visible from space. Mountainsides have been ground to dust and doused with cyanide, teasing out enough gold for a single wedding ring from several tons of rock and soil. Further, tens of thousands of abandoned mines scar the landscape, many emitting an orange-red, acid-laced runoff called “yellow boy.” These mines have poisoned more than 16,000 miles of Western streams (5).

Toxic mud is spilling into the state of Washington, fully 50 miles downstream from the Silver Valley, where North Idaho miners dug silver, lead and other metals from the earth for more than a century. The Spokane River flows from Coeur d’Alene Lake, which the Environmental Protection Agency says holds some 70 million tons of mining waste, which is enough to cover a football field 4.7 miles high (5). All across the west rivers are tainted by old mines, including the Columbia and the Okanogan in Washington.

Not all critics of the 1872 law call for reform because of environmental damage. Some critics are upset by the fact that the law allows miners to dig a fortune from public land without giving a share to the American citizens who own it (5). In 1920, Congress removed oil, natural gas and other minerals that could be used for fuel from the 1872 Mining Law. Instead, the government would lease the rights. Further, in 1977, Congress decreed that miners of coal on federal land would have to pay a royalty of 8 to 12.5 percent, and clean up after themselves. The government in the 1990’s collected $11.08 billion from companies taking coal, oil, and natural gas, plus $35.8 billion in rents, bonuses, royalties and escrow payments for offshore oil and gas reserves (5).

Still, hard-rock miners pay nothing for the gold, silver, platinum, copper and other minerals they get.

Mill Sites and their Legacy

Mill Sites are located on BLM public lands that are non-mineral in character. Mill Sites may be located in connection with a placer or lode claim for mining and milling purposes or as an independent/custom mill site that is independent of a mining claim. Mill Sites are located by metes and bounds or legal subdivision and are up to 5 acres in size (3).

Mills contain crushing and grinding equipment to reduce particle size. The following example is for Gold, although the process is similar for many types of mineral extraction.

The rock fragments are sorted according to size in a grizzly, a device consisting of a series of spaced bars, rails, or pipes, above a forward moving conveyer belt to a crusher machine. After secondary washing, a shaker screen filters out fragments of less than 1/2 inch diameter into a fine ore bin, or box. Larger ore fragments are pulverized or crushed in the crusher. The fine ore is fed by conveyer belt to a ball mill, a rotating steel cylinder filled with tumbling steel balls which further crushes the fragments to a consistency of fine sand or talcum powder. This powder is fed into a thickener with a cyanide and water solution to create a sludge (a sticky, mud-like material). The liquid sludge is diverted into holding tanks and referred to as the pregnant solution – a liquid sludge containing 70 percent of the gold (6). This is drawn from holding tanks through a clarifier, a device that removes all the remaining rock or clay from a pregnant solution. In the next step, the material is taken to a de-aerator tank that removes bubbles of air and further clarifies the solution. Zinc is added in dust form to the de-aerated solution, which is drawn under pressure through a filter press that causes the gold and zinc to precipitate onto special filters. This zinc-gold precipitate (condensed into a solid) is then cleaned from the filters while extreme heat burns off the zinc. Water passing through the filters is chemically tested for gold residue before being discharged into tailings ponds. Gold bearing water may be passed through the filtering process several times to remove all of the gold and separate it from impure substances. Gold recovered from the ore through the milling process is poured into bricks that are shipped.

Through this process, mountains of ore tailings can be generated. These may contain residue of cyanide along with trace metallic minerals associated with gold. Many old mill sites were abandoned when the deposits played out, with their tailing piles slowly leaching toxins into the groundwater today.

The modern day questions are: Do these sites damage the environment, and who is responsible for the cleanup? Fortunately, active mill sites are monitored by government agencies to control potential environmental problems.

Patented Mining Claim: Pro’s and Con’s

A patented mining claim is one for which the Federal Government has passed its title to the claimant, making it private land. Here, the owner holds title to the surface and any mineral rights beneath. Thousands of patented mine claims have been given since they were first granted in the 1800’s.

On the pro side, buying a patented mining claim may be a way to introduce yourself to mining. As some claims undoubtedly have some amount of valuable minerals left, it may be worth investigating and purchasing.

On the con side, many patented claims have been mined, sold, resold, mined again, and sold again. When contemplating the purchase of such land, one should wonder what they are really buying, because they become the owner of the land and any environmental problems that might be associated with the land. There is a “polluter pays” principle that requires the Federal government, where possible, to compel responsible parties to clean up their sites or help cover the costs. If you own a parcel needing cleanup, and cannot find a previous party who polluted the land, guess who the responsible party is! Priorities on cleanup focus on water quality and the release or potential release of hazardous substances.

Further, as some patented mine claims also have value as real estate, other types of problems can develop. The following is an excerpt from a discussion thread regarding a patent claim.

“There was a patented claim on the property, an old mine in which I did the required mining each year with a friend who knew about such stuff, and we got a couple of tiny nuggets and a couple of grams of gold out of it over a few years. For all intents, the old mine was played out and not worth working at the price of gold back then. At most, it was a hobby mine, even if it was “rumored” that the best part of the claim had yet to be worked.

But as gold prices went up, the adjacent property owner started to work his claim a bit more aggressively, and brought in investor partners. I then found out what it was to own a house that was sited on top of the apex of an another patented mining claim. They came in with heavier equipment and started digging, headed to right under my house. Rather than wait until they’d wiped out my foundation, I sold the place to the neighbor at a loss.

My point is that you need to be very careful about what you’ve actually bought when you buy a patented mining claim property. I thought I’d bought an interesting piece of Idaho Springs mining history, a nice house and scenic property with a mine that could be worked as a hobby by some friends, back when gold wasn’t into the stratospheric prices it is today. Instead, I bought a piece of property that was at risk of a nearby patented claim being worked again if the price of gold went up. I didn’t know about the adjacent mine coming under my place until the owner started working the mine again when the price of gold started going up; I’d assumed that his claim was as “worked out” as mine. The folks I bought my place from were very well aware of the risk, but they’d been there for a long time and didn’t see it as anything to worry about, so they didn’t tell me about it” (7).

Certainly, one must be very cautious when contemplating purchasing a patented mine claim, and perform a serious amount of due diligence in their investigation.

Contesting a Claim

In the above example, perhaps the homeowner would desire to “contest” the mining activities near his/her home. But the question is how? 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. This has increasingly become a problem in the modern world as the price of gold increases and mined lands increasingly affect other societal uses such as recreation and home building.

Fortunately, there are several other laws that can be helpful in contesting mining claims. One of these, 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 (8). It further contains a restriction that The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management could reject placer mining if it would “substantially interfere with other uses” like recreation.

An example of implementing this law involves the North Fork of the Clearwater River in Idaho. On the North Fork Clearwater, in May of 21013, a few miners subdivided larger 160-acre claims and sold the parcels on eBay and other auction websites. River recreationists complained to the Forest Service when miners nailed signs to trees to stake out the subdivided claims, most of which were 10 or 20 acres. The agency called for a hearing, which was held before the Department of Interior Office of Hearings and Appeals, and argued that the miners would push out campers and anglers and harm critical habitat for bull trout, a threatened species. Larger-scale placer mining could destroy Native American artifacts in the riverbanks, the agency stated, and would hamper efforts to designate the North Fork as a Wild and Scenic River. Miners didn’t defend 20 of the 36 claims; the ongoing legal sparring over the remaining 16 claims continues (8).

This is just one example of how claims might be contested. Given the plethora of environmental laws today, there are likely to be additional ways to contest mining claims originally allowed by the still valid 1872 mining law.

To summarize, mining claims still exist and are used on BLM lands, primarily in the western United States. With due diligence, claims are a viable way to explore mining opportunities, but care should be taken to evaluate whether the risk is worth the potential reward.


(1) Bureau of Land Management. Mining Claims and Sites on Federal Lands.
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(2) Gold Rush Expeditions. Patented vs. Unpatented Mining Claims.
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(4) Department of Interior Bureau of Land Management Arizona State Office. Operator information for Casual Use, Notice and Plan Level Operations and foe Providing a Financial Guarantee as Required by 43 CFR 3809.
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(5) Seattle pi. The General Mining Act of 1872 has left a legacy of riches and ruin. McClure, R., and Schneider, A. 6/10/2001.
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(6) Mining the Mother lode. Hard Rock Mining: The Process.
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(8) High Country News. The forest Service battles placer mining with an obscure law.
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