In a piece of good news from Arizona, the United States Court of Federal Claims ruled on Tuesday to save the Grand Canyon from the threat of uranium mining.
The suit came about because the US Department of Interior (DOI) chose to protect over 1,000,000 acres of public lands surrounding the Grand Canyon from mining. The power to withdraw public lands from mining for up to twenty years comes from the Federal Land Policy Management Act (FLPMA). Vane Minerals PLC (Vane), a Flagstaff-based mining company, has 678 claims on that land they can no longer mine.
Give and Take
Vane argued, among other things, that the Government’s decision to withdraw these lands from mining violated the US Constitution’s 5th amendment protection against takings without just compensation. If this were a Government taking, Vane would have to show that they actually had something to take by demonstrating a compensable property interest. The problem for Vane is, at the time of the withdrawal, they just had the claims. Claiming you have some uranium does not mean you actually have uranium.
The 1872 Mining Law is pretty peculiar. The law allows anyone who locates valuable minerals on the people’s lands in Western states to stake a claim to those minerals. But, it’s not enough just to find a few grams of uranium; the miner has to “discover” enough minerals to make them worth digging out of the ground. Discovery occurs when the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or US Forest Service (USFS) determines that the claim contains enough value to lead a reasonable miner to spend time and labor developing an economically viable mine. To verify a discovery, BLM and USFS created a process called a valid existing rights (VER) determination.
According to the Court, USFS met with Vane back in August 2009 to discuss the Government’s proposed plans to protect the lands Vane had claimed for mining. Later, in April 2010, USFS told Vane how to get a VER and even scheduled one of their mineral geologists for a field examination for the following month. But rather than get the VER, Vane chose to abandon their mining plan. As a result, no one in the Government had the opportunity to validate Vane’s discovery. So, by January 2012 when the Government finalized the withdrawal, Vane had proved nothing.
If Vane actually had a valid discovery, then they would have had nothing to worry about. The withdrawal does not affect valid existing rights. Instead, they just sat on it.
Earthworks has praised the Government’s decision to protect the Grand Canyon from mining. Withdrawing these lands for twenty years is one of the best tools available to conserve precious water resources and maintain our unique national treasures. Better still, we can reform this peculiar 1872 Mining Law.