Companies in Canada and seven other foreign countries have obtained hard-rock mining rights on one-fifth of all current and former public land in the United States, according to an environmental group's analysis.
About 28,000 companies and individuals paid less than $5 an acre to patent land with precious metals and minerals under terms of the 1872 Mining Law, the Environmental Working Group said Monday, citing figures from the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management.
Those claims account for 5.6 million acres of public land, the organization reported in a study called "Who Owns the West," which it posted on its Web site: http://www.ewg.org/mining/page2.php.
But, it said, just 94 companies -- 82 from Canada, three each from Australia and Britain, two from Mexico and one each from Barbados, Germany, Japan and Russia -- control those rights on 1.2 million acres.
An analyst for the group, Dusty Horwitt, said the aim was to highlight the need to change the 132-year-old law. Environmentalists have long criticized the act, saying it gives public resources to private companies for a small fraction of their real value.
The federal data show that six of the top eight claimants are foreign-owned companies; the other two are based in Denver and Phoenix. Two people from Utah and Nevada, each with nearly 50,000 acres, round out the top 10.
BLM oversees mining activity, including claims and patents on public land. Since 1994, Congress has barred new patent applications on public land but let older, "grandfathered" patents continue.
"We comply with the law of the land, and it's important to remember that these companies provide high-paying jobs for rural communities throughout the West," said Celia Boddington, a spokeswoman for the BLM.
Some of the companies and people got the mineral rights by patenting public land, effectively buying it and making it private. Others have active claims on public land, still regulated by the BLM.
The government does not collect royalties from hard-rock mining on either patented or public land.
The Bush administration in October 2001 reversed some Clinton-era mining regulations. It eliminated the government's authority to tell miners they cannot dig on public land where they have staked claims, but it kept a requirement that mining operators post bonds to assure they will clean up after themselves.
Three environmental groups challenged those regulations in November 2001. A federal judge ruled in November that the Interior Department has not been requiring companies to pay fair market value for the use of public land and resources.
U.S. District Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. ordered the administration to revisit some of its mining rules for hard-rock minerals to ensure they are in keeping with Congress's wish that the government receive fair market value when public land and resources are used.
The National Mining Association, however, says the West's mining economy is hindered by a permit process that typically takes four to eight years. As a result, it says, other countries often attract new investment despite abundant U.S. mineral resources.