May 10, 1872, is a date with peculiar significance. On that day, Congress passed the General Mining Law, which established the requirement that anyone with a claim on federal land must perform $100 worth of work every year on it, or lose his claim.
The $100 "assessment work" was supposed to demonstrate diligence. If you did your $100 in labor every year, it proved you were serious about using the federal land.It's simple to fulfill the requirement. I've seen it done in the San Rafael Reef. You just rent a bulldozer and go plow up the desert for a few hours, until you figure you've done $100 worth of work. You could make a new road to your claim one year, widen it the next, grade it the next, extend it the following - and so on.
It's such an easy requirement that thousands of nearly worthless claims are kept alive on pure speculation. Who knows? Someday the cost of uranium may go up enough to make that old mountain valuable; meanwhile, keep bulldozing.
Obviously, the intent of the 1872 law's diligence requirement is to stop people from just going out and randomly claiming huge swaths of the countryside. If they did that, the land would be foreclosed to others who might have a better idea about its use.
The 1872 mining law is in the news because the Bureau of Land Management announced a revision this week. From now on, says BLM national director Robert F. Burford, the agency will charge an additional $5 per year per claim as a filing fee to help process the paperwork.
"In fiscal year 1987, we recorded more than 147,000 new mining claims and processed about 654,000 filings of affidavits for assessment work,"he said. The new fee will bring in about $4.5 million yearly.
Burford's BLM went through agonizing efforts to make certain the little increase wouldn't inconvenience any mining companies.
"Last spring, I personally engaged in `pulse taking' discussions on the proposal with many groups, individuals and members of Congress. Then, when we issued the proposed rulemaking June 23, I told my staff to take the unprecedented step of sending 60,000 postcards to notify mining claimants that the rulemaking was available for comment. We wanted to ensure that the people most likely to be affected by the rulemaking would have ample opportunity to review it," Burford said.
What, didn't you get one of the postcards? Must mean you don't have any interest in the federal land.
But to continue with the BLM's travail:
"In addition, we have delayed issuing the final regulations until December so that they will become effective early next year. This will give mining claimants about nine months to plan for this new fee."
On May 10, 1872, readers of the Deseret News learned that in Chicago, Vice President Schuyler Colfax was maneuvering for the presidential nomination, trying to lay the groundwork for dumping President Ulysses Grant. In the same day's paper, readers learned that a drove of 1,000 horses and mules were starting from Los Angeles for Salt Lake City. They saw an advertisement for seven pounds of bacon, $1; coffee, 4 1/2 pounds for $1, and 5 3/4 pounds of sugar, $1.
Not that those items were cheap. On the contrary, having been shipped by train across the prairies, they were quite expensive. After all, young men were glad to work in mining pits for $2.80 to $4.21 a day, because on the farm they would earn only $1.50 to $2.50 daily.
By contrast, union miners today earn between $117.98 and $126.52 per day. In other words, miners' wages are 30 to 40 times the amount they earned back then.
By 1880, eight years after passage of the mining law, Utah's per capita income had gone up to $134 a year, while the national average was $175. Per capita income has risen steadily since the Civil War, and it's one gauge of the inflation rate.
By 1985, America's per capita income was $13,451. In a little over a century, it went up by a factor of 76.8.
Yet the 1872 mining law retains the quaint $100 yearly assessment rule. This deflated fee is a great boon for mining companies, allowing them to file claims almost casually. They gouge out thousands of miles of roads across public land for their own speculative purposes.
Every member of the public has an interest in the land, too. And as times changed, Americans came to treasure the natural beauty of our landscape. It's a healing balm.
The BLM made a ridiculous spectacle of itself, jumping through hoops to make sure no miner is offended by having to help with the paperwork he generates. Instead of that, it should have lobbied Congress to update the mining law.
The law's an antique from the days of bowler hats, buggies and button-on collars. To be meaningful, it must be amended to account for inflation.
That $100 assessment should be, at a minimum, $3,000 or $4,000 per year, based only on the change in mining wages. If the change in per capita income is used to adjust the assessment law, it would be $7,680.
Congress' intent has been violated by the simple drift of history.