Last month the Bush administration handed a multinational mining company 155 acres of federally owned, prime mountaintop real estate near a Colorado ski resort. The price? Just $5 an acre (a total of $875), in an area where 1/10 of an acre fetches as much as $100,000.
The sweetheart giveaway sailed through under a 132-year-old federal law that allows mining companies to purchase unrestricted patents on public land, and then use the land for their own profit — by mining it for silver, gold or other minerals or even by developing it into luxury condominiums and getaway homes.
The 1872 Mining Law, which has never been updated to reflect 21st century real estate values, has enabled mining companies to extract more than $245 billion in metals and minerals from public lands without paying a single subsidy to taxpayers since the statute went into effect 132 years ago. It currently applies to more than 270 million acres of public lands in the U.S., or “2/3 of the land the federal government holds in trust for all Americans.”
Phelps Dodge Corp. used the 1872 law to apply for nine patents on U.S. Forest Service land at the top of Mount Emmons, also known as the “Red Lady,” just three miles west of the Crested Butte ski area in Colorado. The area, which lies within the boundaries of Gunnison National Forest, is the site of a longstanding battle between mining interests and the local community, which has since filed suit against the federal Bureau of Land Management protesting its sale of the patents. The suit is being brought by the Gunnison County Board of Commissioners, the Town of Crested Butte and High Country Citizens’ Alliance.
Phelps Dodge claims the land can be used to operate a molybdenum mine, though opponents argue such a use would not be profitable since there is already a large supply of this ore (used in rifle barrels, batteries and lubricants) on the market.
Observers believe the company is more likely to develop the land into vacation homes. Indeed, in legal documents filed two years ago in a separate case, the company argued that establishing a mine on that land would be fiscally
“Once again the abuses allowed by the outdated 1872 Mining Law are being exploited by mining companies — free gold, silver or molybdenum, access to prime real estate at 1872 prices, no environmental standards — what’s not to like? Unless you’re not a mining company,” said Steve D’Esposito, president of EarthWorks, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that fights for reform of the 1872 law.
 “Sale of Mining Patents Roils Crested Butte Residents,” Denver Post, Apr. 6, 2004.
 Earthworks 1872 Mining Law.
 “Local forces file suit over Red Lady land,” Crested Butte News, Apr. 15, 2004.
 Denver Post, Apr. 6, 2004.
 “Company Has Argued Both Sides in Mine Patent,” Denver Post, Apr. 19, 2004.