You might come across the remains of a tram or a pile of mine tailings or a rusty tank – if you know where to look in Death Valley National Park, Wrangell-St. Elias Park and Preserve in Alaska, Glacier Peak Wilderness in the Washington Cascades or Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.
It may be surprising to discover the artifacts of industrial activity in an otherwise tranquil natural scene. Miles inside a national park, designated wilderness area or other conservation area, the remains of mining claims are everywhere.
As resource development on public lands is once again a topic of national debate, it has become increasingly important to ask: how did protected areas and mining become so intertwined?
One hundred and fifty years ago, Congress set two fundamental precedents for our national landscape just 10 weeks apart: the Yellowstone National Park Act, setting in motion what would be called America’s Best Idea; and the General Mining Law, which opened public lands to mining exploration. President Grant seemed to play both sides, making it impossible to colonize and privatize public lands in Yellowstone while making it easy to extract valuable minerals from almost anywhere without forcing discoverers to pay a dime.
These competing priorities ushered in a new land tenure system in the United States, based on a fundamental notion of American land defined by a history of Indigenous expropriation, economic liberalism, and segregated land uses.
When Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Act on March 1, 1872, he “set aside as a public park or pleasure ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” some 2 million acres in the north-corner western Wyoming, leaning just a bit into Idaho and Montana. In this remarkable landscape of geysers and bison and luminous sulfuric pools, no one was allowed to settle or occupy the land. Resources such as timber and minerals were to be preserved “from damage or despoliation”, and all natural spectacles would be kept in “their natural state”. No “gratuitous killing” of game or fish “for sale or profit” would be permitted.
The following May 10, Grant signed into law a bill that facilitated the wanton destruction of many of the country’s public lands and created massive wealth for the few. The General Mines Act 1872 declared all lands in the public domain where valuable minerals might be found to be “free and open to exploration and purchase”. This legislation legitimized mining on all surveyed or unsurveyed land for personal or corporate purposes. The law remains in effect today.
Both laws beat with the cadence of dispossession. From the earliest days of the republic, the nation’s policy was to take land from indigenous peoples – by war, by treaty, by duplicity and fraud – and transfer it into the private hands of yeoman farmers producing food and virtue on farms scattered across the continent. .
These 1872 laws were made possible in part because the federal government stopped making treaties with Native tribes in 1871. Yellowstone’s wide-open “pleasure grounds” are only “empty” because of the enforced absences of the Apsaalooké and Shoshone peoples, and the same is true for other Indigenous nations in subsequent public parks.
Similarly, large mineral rushes, both before and after the 1872 Act, regularly invaded Indigenous territory, often in explicit violation of treaty agreements. It stripped the lands, wealth, and health of Indigenous peoples and caused continued violence, illustrating a shared North American history.
The 1872 laws made the land either a museum or a sacrifice area, not a place to live. National parks – and later, national forests, monuments, grasslands or wildlife refuges – and mining sites that housed indigenous people quickly redefined these former residents as trespassers.
Both laws have also benefited corporate boards. The tracks of the Northern Pacific Railroad had not yet been laid out, but the route took it near the northern edge of Yellowstone. Like many transcontinental railroads, the Northern Pacific faced financial difficulties and fiercely protected its territory from its competition. Jay Cooke, the railroad chief, saw the park as a potential future revenue stream and used his influence to encourage Congress to create it, mingling corporate interests with national parks.
The General Mining Law has also benefited business and enterprise development in a much more direct way. Obtaining land for mining was simple: locate valuable minerals, then claim and take them. If they wanted, mining developers could pay a modest fee of $2.50 or $5 per acre (depending on the type of claim) to purchase the land.
These simple terms were consistent with a guiding belief of 19th-century economic liberalism: government was supposed to facilitate economic development, then step back. The federal government and US taxpayers do not receive any royalties on minerals subject to the mining law. Over the next century, an area nearly the size of Connecticut fell into cheap private hands.
The General Mining Act has caused major environmental damage, including the creation of terrible waste – and continues to do so. Although few large-scale hard-rock mining operations have been launched in recent decades, 100 million acres of public land can still be explored and, if minerals are located, the claim-and-take process is largely the same as in the 1870s. . Although Congress instituted a moratorium in the 1990s on patenting claims, ending outright ownership, mineral extraction does not require land ownership – and mining claims close land to others. uses.
Meanwhile, environmental regulations and bonds posted to support reclamation are often insufficient. More than 50 billion tons of waste was left behind after mining and processing, damaging all kinds of lakes and land surrounding the mines. The few reforms to the law include a leasing system for certain resources (such as coal and gas) and improved environmental sanitation. But the general mining law enjoys strong allies in resource-dependent congressional districts that have resisted few calls for fundamental reform, such as royalties and a fund to clean up abandoned mines.
How do you reconcile President Grant’s conflicting imperatives – to protect the natural world at all costs versus to exploit it carelessly?
Both laws seized land from its original inhabitants and also revealed a fundamental idea that drives American culture and law: land is meant to be owned or controlled. From this point of view, tonnage and tourism, the price of an ounce and entry fees, appear as simply different forms of commodification. While strip mines are markedly different from, say, the Grand Canyon, both require — depending on the prevailing philosophy — owner or congressional-approved management goals.
People have inhabited the continent since time immemorial, but this system is only a century and a half old. Outdated laws can be made fairer.
Adam M. Sowards is an environmental historian and writer. His most recent book is “Making America’s Public Lands: The Contested History of Conservation on Federal Lands”. This article was produced in partnership with Zocalo Public Square.