Instructions on staking claims and filing for patents can be obtained from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. In addition to Federal regulations, individual States also have certain requirements pertaining to the location of claims on public lands. Information on these requirements is available from the State agency that deals with mining. Claims for mining can only be staked on lands of the public domain.
Lands in areas generally subject to location for mining, such as National Forests, may be open or closed depending on whether the land has been withdrawn for some special purpose. The status of the land can usually be determined by local inquiry to the U.S. Forest Service, or it can be checked at the Land Offices of the Bureau of Land Management or at the County Assessor’s Office. The status of land being considered for mining should be established before any significant investment of money or labor has been made. This will insure that the ground is open to location so that the prospector can stake a valid claim and protect his investment.
When entering any land to examine for or attempt to mine placer gold, a person should determine if it is privately owned, previously located by claim that may still be valid, or possibly held under patent, which conveys the right of private ownership. Under any of these conditions, the unauthorized intruder is trespassing and has no legal rights to the gold he may produce. Usually some sign or indication of ownership is evident, or a local resident can supply the information necessary to determine ownership, but in any event one takes his chances when the status of land is uncertain. At the worst, the land may be protected by a shotgun. Active claims should be clearly marked, and records may be checked in the respective County Courthouse to determine approximately where and when they were located. It should be added that, however necessary, such checking can be tedious.
The basic laws on location of mining claims in the public domain are contained in the General Mining Laws of 1872. Placer claims generally can be located on lands that would be classified as locatable if they contained vein or lode deposits. Neither the beds of navigable lakes and rivers nor lands below high tide are subject to mineral location. However, new claims can be located over abandoned earlier ones, although the new locator may be called upon to establish that the earlier claims, were, in fact, abandoned at the time of relocation.
Mining locations may be made by U.S. citizens, by those who have declared their intention to become citizens, by an association of qualified persons, or by a domestic corporation. A location may be made by a minor who has reached “the age of discretion,” and without regard to the sex or residence of the locator. A person may make valid locations as an agent for other qualified parties who may not have even seen the ground. No limit is placed by Federal statutes on the number of locations that may be made, and claims may be amended and boundaries changed at any time, provided such changes do not interfere with the rights of others.
Generally, a placer claim is established by posting a notice of location upon a tree, a rock in place, a stone, a post, or a monument. This must contain the name of the claim, name of locator or locators, date of location, number of square feet or acreage claimed, and sufficient description of the claim by reference to some natural object or permanent monument to identify the claim, following which the boundaries of the claim must be marked so they may be readily traced. Requirements for marking of boundaries vary somewhat by State. A location may not exceed 20 acres for any one person nor 160 acres for an association of persons, and claims should conform as nearly as practicable with the rectangular subdivision characteristic of the U.S. system of public land surveys.
At least one discovery of mineralization is required per claim (20 to 160 acres) “that would justify a person of ordinary prudence in the further expenditure of time and money, with reasonable prospect of success in developing a profitable mine.” A discovery implies a certain amount of excavation to show that the required mineral is indeed present, although State laws vary somewhat on this point. A minimum annual expenditure in labor and improvements of $100 must be made to hold possession of a mining claim, and evidence to this effect must be duly recorded by the appropriate county recorder. Such work is generally known as “assessment work.” Provisions are also made for millsites on nonmineral land. Since September 2, 1958, the requirements for assessment work may be satisfied by conducting geological, geochemical, and geophysical surveys under the supervision of a qualified expert.
Unpatented claims may be bought and sold, but their use is restricted to mining purposes only. Any use of the surface for purposes unrelated or foreign to mining is unauthorized. Ownership of both the minerals and lands prospected and developed is attained by the process of patenting. Prior to patenting, the claim holder has possessory rights only to the minerals.
A number of requirements must be met for a patent, which is obtained through the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. These include proof of discovery of valuable minerals, expenditure of at least $500 in labor and improvements, payment for filing application, publishing costs, and other items. Specific information on placer mining patent applications and on adverse claim procedures in the case of contested rights can be found under parts 3863 and 3870, title 43, of the Code of Federal Regulations pertaining to mining claims under the General Mining Laws of 1872.
Public Law 167, enacted July 23, 1935, provides for multiple use of the surface of public lands. This does not alter the validity of gold placer locations based upon sufficient evidence of discovery. It does set up procedures whereby the Government agency responsible for administering surface resources can challenge a mining claimant. In this way the question of surface rights is cleared so that the fullest use can be made of the land.
Under Public Law 359, enacted August 11, 1955, mining is permitted on lands which have been withdrawn from location or reserved for power development and for other purposes, provided certain steps are taken. In this case, permission to mine must be obtained from the Secretary of the Interior. Claims located before the date of the act on a power withdrawal are relocatable.
Lands accorded to Indian Reservations are not subject to claim under U.S. mining laws. (From June 18, 1943, to May 27, 1955, an exception was made for the Papago Indian Reservation, but such free mineral entries were then curtailed (43 CFR 3825, formerly 3635).) One wishing to prospect or mine on Indian lands must obtain a lease from the Secretary of the Interior; application for the lease should be made through the reservation superintendent.
On State-owned lands, application for prospecting or mining lease should be made to the appropriate State authority. Regulations on granting such leases vary by State. Mining claims can be located on private stock-raising homestead lands where the Government has reserved rights to minerals, although certain limitations are specified to protect the homesteader and to provide reimbursement for damage to crops or to tangible improvements. Taylor Grazing Act lands are also subject to location.
Privately owned lands are usually leased or may be purchased outright for mining purposes. Normally a lease will carry a royalty provision on the mineral production as a percentage of the gross or net value received from sales. Many different arrangements are possible, depending upon the requirements or bargaining positions of the potential lessor and lessee.
The recent completion of studies of mining laws by the Public Land Law Review Commission and recommendations by the Commission can be expected to result in changes in regulations that could affect placer location procedures or mining rights. Information on such changes as they occur will become available from the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Department of the Interior.
Problems with Water Rights, Water Supply, and Stream Pollution
The need for a good, dependable, and plentiful supply of water increases geometrically with the scale of operation in placer mining. Panning gold requires very little water and can be done in a small tub if necessary. At the other extreme, the hydraulic monitor, once in use, employed large flows of water under high pressure, and sluicing at a large operation could consume virtually all the water that might be available. One thing the placer miner must keep in mind is the seasonal nature of stream flow. This affects both the supply of water and also the problems of pollution for downstream users and damage to stream ecology.
Various means are used to divert and impound water. Channels, pipes, and flumes can be constructed to conduct water where it is wanted. If supply at a continuous flow is limited, storage must be provided, and placer operation is then restricted to periodic activity and depends on the capacity of the reservoir. A simple tank may make a suitable reservoir for a small operation. Pumps are commonly used now where power is cheap enough, and the recirculation enables use of a smaller supply of water.
The question of water rights has always been important to the placer miner and is a complex subject in itself. Legal authorities should be consulted in case of any doubts or disputes. It has been common practice in placer mining to measure water requirements in terms of “miner’s inches,” which can be converted to rate of flow by the approximate factor of 40 inches to 1 cubic foot per second (the legal conversion in Arizona, California, Montana, and Oregon; other States vary). One cubic foot of water is equivalent to about 7.5 gallons. Thus, a miner’s inch converts to 11.2 gallons per minute.
Water flows are measured in cubic feet per second and storage is measured in acre-feet, the latter being equivalent to a 1-foot depth of water spread across an area of 1 acre. Measurement of flow is usually done with a calibrated weir, but flows can be estimated by average velocity or by other methods if the quantity is large. A term used to describe the effectiveness of water in hydraulic operations is its “duty,” which is usually expressed as the number of cubic yards of gravel washed per miner’s inch per 24-hour day. Water duty will vary greatly with the mining situation.
States where placer mining has been important in the past, such as California, have enacted detailed and quite strict laws regarding stream pollution from placer operations. Such laws require the construction of a settling pond or ponds of sufficient size to clarify the water used in mining before it is discharged into the stream. Furthermore, they may require that aluminum sulfate and lime or some similar clarifying substance be added to the effluent to avoid rendering the water in the stream unfit for domestic water supply purposes.
Regulations regarding stream pollution may vary with the stream and the particular portion of the State, so the appropriate control agencies should be consulted. In California, the California Debris Commission and the California Department of Fish and Game regulate discharges from mining operations. The California Fish and Game Code curtails mining operations in the Trinity and Klamath River fish and game district between July 1 and November 30, “except when the debris, substances, tailings, or other effluent from such operations do not and cannot pass into waters in the said district.” Federal and State water resource and water quality control agencies may also have something to say about placer mining discharges, and it is wise to check with them before undertaking any sizable project.
Legislation in California that closed down hydraulic mining on the Sacramento River and its tributaries goes back many years. An act entitled “Protection of Domestic Water Supplies From Pollution of Placer Mining Operations” covering the watersheds of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers (A. B. 2006) was passed in 1941, requiring a permit for placer mining from the California Debris Commission and compliance with a number of provisions specifically aimed at dredging.
Who Can Advise You
There are many sources to which the novice placer miner may turn for information. Probably the first should be the particular State agency dealing with geology, mining, conservation, or development. Universities with geology or mining departments will have knowledgeable people who can be consulted. A readily accessible source of information is the reference section of your public library. Professional engineers and consultants may be contacted through professional organizations or directly, by telephone.
Federal agencies most concerned with the problems of placer mining are the Bureau of Mines, the Geological Survey, and the Bureau of Land Management, Department of the Interior. Generally, the Bureau of Mines is best equipped to handle technical or statistical questions; the Geological Survey provides information on geology and deposits; and the Bureau of Land Management is involved in land ownership and evaluation problems. The Forest Service, Department of Agriculture, is a good source of information on placer mining sites and regulations within the National Forests. Furthermore, the prospector is well advised to inquire at the local ranger station of the National Forest in which he intends to prospect for guidance and to inform the ranger of his intent.
County offices, including that of the County Recorder, can often supply useful information on claim staking and placer locations within that county. Forms for location notices are normally available at the County Courthouse in mining localities or may be purchased at a stationery store. Questions about possession and sale of gold come under the purview of the Department of the Treasury.