Hey, there! Want to make a fortune in gold? Want to make a killing in copper? Arizona and Nevada are waiting for you. Bring your pick, your shovel and your lawyer, and see how you too can rip off Uncle Sam.
The General Accounting Office has just filed a report bearing the bland title "The Mining Law of 1872 Needs Revision." The contents may be old hat to Westerners, but to those in the effete East, the story boggles the mind.It appears that back in 1872, Congress passed an act having two purposes. The first was to help in settling the wild West; the second was to promote the discovery of valuable mineral resources. With some modifications, the law is still on the books. It works this way:
First, as a U.S. citizen, you locate a piece of federally owned land that might have deposits of gold, silver, uranium, bentonite or oil shale. This isn't tough. Roughly 479 million acres of land are available.
Second, you stake a claim to whatever mineral deposit attracts your fancy. You file affidavits that you have spent at least $500 in developing the property. Then comes the only tough part. You must satisfy the Bureau of Land Management that the claim may be mined economically. That task may be difficult, but obviously it is not impossible: More than 65,000 claims have been patented under the law. Once a patent is approved, you pay the government $2.50 to $5 an acre, and you take fee simple title to the land.
Now comes the interesting part. You don't have to go into the mining business. The land is yours, and you may sell it for whatever the traffic will bear. GAO inspectors reviewed 20 patents issued since 1970. The owners paid the government $4,500. The property was valued in 1988 somewhere in the neighborhood of $48 million.
The GAO report is filled with eye-opening examples. In 1986, claimants took title to 17,000 acres of oil shale land. Three weeks later they sold the property to major oil companies for $37 million.
History tells us of the gold rush of 1849 to the Mother Lode country of California. The rush is still on. The GAO visited two gold mines in the area, a 12-acre parcel near the retirement community of West Point, and a 34-acre parcel near Sonora. Both are inactive. The former was patented in 1982 for $62, the latter in 1985 for $170. Current fair market value: $125,000 for the one, $510,000 for the other.
Do the ski slopes of Colorado beckon? Near Keystone, close to the ski runs, some smart fellows patented 160 acres in 1983. They paid the government $400. To this day, no gold ever has been mined on the property. Forty-four acres were up for sale when the GAO took a look. The asking price was $11,000 an acre, or $484,000 for the parcel. At that rate the property would have a market value of $1.8 million.
Among pending patent applications in Colorado were two claims for 60 acres in a scenic section of the Arapaho National Forest near the Breckenridge ski area. If the whole 60-acre parcel goes under patent, the government will get $201. The developers have a prospect of turning it over for $12 million.
Metaphorically speaking, if this isn't highway robbery, it is something remarkably close to it - and it is all legal. The law should be amended to eliminate the patenting system altogether; if bona fide miners want to go for gold on federal lands, they should pay royalties on what they extract. Under present law, the government gets nothing at all for whatever minerals are produced.
At a time when the government is running enormous deficits, this folly cannot be condoned. If there's gold in them thar hills, let the taxpayers have their share.