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Mining, Grazing, and Managing the Public Domain
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Mining, Grazing, and Managing the Public Domain

Nothing more dramatically stimulated the westward movement than discoveries of gold, silver, and other valuable minerals on the public lands. The thousands who rushed to California in 1849 were followed by other waves to Oregon, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, and Colorado in the 1850s and 1860s as strikes were publicized there. Responding to a call for legal mining rights on government lands, Congress passed the Mining Act of 1872. Under this law, prospectors could protect their interests by marking out the boundaries of their claims, filing notice with the county clerk, and doing annual assessment work. Because there were no requirements to seek patents for ownership or to prove mineral production within any reasonable time, thousands of acres became encumbered with claims of no public or private benefit.

The Minerals Leasing Act of 1920 was an important advance in this regard. Under its terms, the General Land Office leased lands bearing oil, gas, coal, and certain other critical minerals to private producers. The government received rental payments and royalties on production. This regulated private exploitation of lands remaining in public ownership and federal trusteeship was another significant achievement of the utilitarian conservationists' program.

In 1910 the public interest in mining was recognized through the creation of another Interior bureau. After a series of coal mine disasters--which in 1907 took more than 3,000 lives--Congress established the Bureau of Mines to promote minerals technology and mine safety. Joseph A. Holmes, formerly concerned with these matters in the Geological Survey, became its first director. The bureau opened an experimental coal mine near Pittsburgh, where it conducted tests with coal dust and ultimately prompted rescue stations and first aid training for miners. Following passage of the 1920 Leasing Act it acquired the job of supervising mining operations on the public lands.

The latter responsibility lasted only until 1925, when the Bureau of Mines was shifted to the Department of Commerce. To keep the technical inspection of mineral lease operations within the Interior Department, that function was moved to the Geological Survey, where it remained even after the Bureau of Mines returned to Interior in 1934. In 1941 Congress gave the bureau power to inspect private mines, but not until the late 1960s did it gain authority to enforce health and safety standards. Since 1977 the Bureau of Mines has been primarily a research and fact-finding agency for nonfuel minerals, fossil fuels technology having gone to the Department of Energy and mine health and safety concerns to the Department of Labor.

Interior's two newest bureaus, at this writing, also deal with mining. The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement was established by the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977. It regulates and oversees state regulation of strip coal mining to minimize and repair the kind of environmental damage that long tarnished this activity. The Minerals Management Service, established by secretarial order in 1982, handles the department's oil and gas leasing responsibilities on the Outer Continental Shelf and collects all lease and royalty revenues from both onshore and offshore mining. These receipts, constituting one of the largest categories of federal income from nontax sources, are distributed to the general fund of the Treasury, to the states, and to Indian tribes and allottees.

Livestock grazing was the last major unregulated economic use of the public lands. As 20th-century homesteaders pushed stockmen into the semi-arid Rocky Mountain Plateau, competition for the waning grasslands intensified. Overgrazing turned range to desert. By 1934 the need for what conservationists had unsuccessfully urged three decades before was widely apparent, and Congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act.

The Taylor Act authorized the Secretary of the Interior to place 80 million acres of the public domain in grazing districts (the limit was later increased, then dropped) and set rules and fees for grazing permits. Twenty-five percent of the fee receipts could go for range improvements. Secretary Harold L. Ickes placed Farrington R. Carpenter in charge of a new Grazing Division, which became the Grazing Service in 1939. Carpenter, a freewheeling Colorado rancher-lawyer educated at Princeton and Harvard, relied heavily on local citizen participation in organizing the grazing districts and approving permit applications.

Implementation of the Taylor Act virtually ended the homesteading era outside Alaska. Public land dispositions in the 48 states were henceforth contingent on the Secretary of the Interior's judgment that the lands in question were more suited for uses other than grazing. Little remained to so classify. A historian of public land policy has called the act "a great watershed in American life. . . . After its passage, all land use and land use adjustments were subject to political and administrative proceses in some form: local zoning and planning acts, state ownership and administration, or various forms of federal ownership and management." [42]

On July 16, 1946, the General Land Office, one of the oldest federal bureaus, and the Grazing Service, one of the newest, were merged to form the Bureau of Land Management. As inheritor of the original Interior component most concerned with lands and natural resources, BLM may be considered the core of the modern department.

Drawing on expertise from more specialized bureaus as well as its own, BLM conducts a broader range of resource management functions than any other Interior unit. Its concerns encompass timber, oil and gas, hard rock minerals, geothermal energy, wildlife habitat, endangered plant and animal species, archeological and other cultural sites, wild and scenic rivers, designated conservation and wilderness areas, and recreation. It is responsible for the total management of 342 million acres of public lands, primarily in the Far West and Alaska, and for the subsurface resources of an additional 370 million acres where the federal government holds mineral rights.

A last-minute amendment to the Taylor Act mentioning "final disposal" of the public lands kept alive the prospect of their future transfer or sale. Continued controversies surrounding their management and disposition led in 1964 to establishment of the Public Land Law Review Commission, composed of members of Congress and citizens appointed by the President. The commission's recommendation of a general charter for the public lands bore fruit in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976. The act hinged further land disposition on a planning process designed to identify tracts whose potential would best be achieved in nonfederal ownership. To govern the great majority of land that would remain to constitute the public domain, BLM received a comprehensive mission statement emphasizing multiple use, sustained yield, and environmental protection.

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