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Hard Rock

December 28, 2001

Mining is hard work, no matter how you do it. But when I think of pioneers hardrock-mining with hand tools in the Rocky Mountain winters, I bow in awe, figuratively speaking.

I can barely face scraping ice off my windshield. I would be unhappy banging cold steel against frozen rock all day long, day after day.

However, I could still do it, if I were so inclined. I could locate and record a mining claim and pass my days there trying to extract the minerals. I could even apply for a mineral patent, which eventually transfers title of the public land to me, making it private land.

I find it remarkable that one can still do this. But then again, the Homestead Act, by which settlers laid claim to public lands, remained in effect in Alaska until 1986.

Every year or two, we get an inquiry at the library about mining laws and rules. In the past, it has been most helpful to send the person to the Canon City BLM office, which is home to people in charge and in the know. The BLM also has a pamphlet, “Mining claims and sites on federal lands.”

Recently, we acquired a couple of copies of the small pamphlet, as well as the authoritative tome recommended by one of the experts there: “Mineral law” by Terry S. Maley.

I immediately learned that distinction is made between “locatable,” “salable,” and “leasable” minerals. Locatable minerals are high-value minerals for which you may file a mining claim.

Salable minerals are low-value, such as sand, stone, and gravel, and require merely a permit to extract. Then there are leasable minerals, such as oil and gas, which the government leases to interested parties.

But “Mineral law,” at over 900 pages, is full of fun stuff. You might have imagined that an island that is public land at the time of statehood remains the property of the United States. But did you guess that if the island disappears and then reforms in the same place, it becomes the property of the state?

Sounds to me like an opportunity for some funny business. But such are the circumstances that continually create and refine — and complicate — our laws.

I was surprised to learn that one can patent a mill site without having a claim to a mine. I’m curious to know just how much public land has been converted to private by this process of patenting mining claims and mill sites.

Not that I fear a flood of real estate developers rushing the BLM offices. Mined land is not desirable real estate. Frankly, I wish humans would do more of their building on the poorest lands instead of “developing” attractive, watered lands that support wildlife.

Man has the technology to “develop” anything. That’s how mines got there in the first place. Reclaiming scarred lands for living should be easy for us.

I think the first book I read about mining in the West was David Lavender’s “One man’s West.” The first part of the book tells of his time as a young man working at the Camp Bird mine above Ouray … through the winter.

Their hillside facilities, blessed with little heat and infrequent hot water, included a urinal connected to a pipe through the wall, from which hung “a ten-foot icicle of astonishing color.” I remember feeling cold just reading about it.

I had a hot shower this morning; life is good.

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