SAN JUAN COUNTY, Utah — Forty miles as the crow flies west of Blanding, Utah, just up the road from the former uranium boomtown of Fry Canyon and a dirt airstrip, is a parcel of federal land historically valued for its radioactive metal and other hardrock minerals.
The tracks of mule deer and cattle criss-cross a maze of red rock, cacti and parched-looking shrubs. The only signs of human life are the contrails from airlines overhead and the sound of an occasional car buzzing along State Route 95.
Here is where I decided to stake my claim, the first step a prospector takes to mine public lands.
For a year, this remote and magnificent desert landscape was part of Bears Ears National Monument and off-limits to new mining claims. That changed in December when President Donald Trump reduced the 1.35 million-acre monument by 85 percent. The more stringent protections the Obama-era monument designation afforded officially lifted in early February, leaving sites like this once again open for business. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) braced for a potential influx of new claims.
The process of staking a claim has changed little since the days of Manifest Destiny. It’s still governed by the General Mining Act of 1872, which itself is based on an acquisition system prospectors used around the time of California’s Gold Rush. You read that right: The law our entire federal mining system is based on is almost exactly the same as it was 146 years ago.
Here’s how it works: A prospector goes out on public land, pickax, gold pan or, preferably, some more advanced technology in hand, and locates a valuable mineral. He or she drives a stake in the ground and erects posts or rock piles at each corner of the parcel they want to call dibs on. The prospector writes a name, address and information about the claim on a piece of paper, stuffs it in a tin can or plastic bag attached to one of the corner markers, and then files a notice with Uncle Sam, for the bargain price of just $212 for a 20-acre parcel.
And then, voila! The prospector has the rights to the valuable hard-rock minerals contained therein. This bizarrely outdated system allows not only U.S. citizens but foreign companies to extract minerals from public lands and turn a profit without ever paying a dime in royalties to the federal government.
My goal in staking my own claim was simple. While I had no intention of launching a new career in the extractive mineral industry, I wanted to see how easy it really was to declare part of an area so recently protected from new mining as my very own, and the implications that might have for an archaeologically rich landscape considered sacred to many Native Americans.
In the days after Trump officially lifted protections on more than 2 million acres of Bears Ears and nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments, I found myself scouring the web for mining data.
Using a website called “The Diggings,” a user-friendly resource of mining claims that I can only guess was developed out of a hatred for the Bureau of Land Management’s Y2K-era online database, I zeroed in on claims that are now inactive because, for whatever reason, the claimant failed to pay the annual maintenance fee. I figured a parcel where someone had previously made a discovery was as good a place as any for a rookie to start.
Approximately one-third of the acres removed from Bears Ears are wilderness or wilderness study areas and remain off-limits to claims. Finding a parcel that was previously part of Bears Ears, did not have an active claim and was not otherwise restricted to mining proved to be a bit of a challenge.
Cross-referencing information to the BLM’s database, I identified three promising sites: one in Valley of the Gods that uranium miners staked in 1984 and abandoned less than four months later; another, which appeared to be a gold claim, staked in 1984 in the Manti-La Sal National Forest and forfeited five years later; and a parcel out near Fry Canyon — the one I ultimately settled on — where numerous parties, mostly uranium mining companies, had staked dozens of claims between 1948 and 2007.
And then it was off to southern Utah.
It was a little before noon on a sunny day in late March when I met up with freelance photographer Kim Raff outside Blanding’s quaint little visitor’s center. After a last-minute supply run to the local hardware store, we piled gear into a rental SUV.
The one-hour drive to the claim site, which I’d scoped out the day before, took us up and over Comb Ridge, an ancient sandstone monocline that runs for some 80 miles, and past the pair of towering buttes for which Bears Ears is named. After dipping south of Natural Bridges National Monument and winding between several towering mesas, Route 95 swings past the shuttered Fry Canyon Lodge, once a remote backcountry inn, gas station and RV park. A sign out front reads: “Closed. Private Property.” Somewhere over the ridge behind the dilapidated structure is the idle Daneros uranium mine, located just outside the former monument boundary.
Near mile marker 69, I parked along the shoulder, careful not to crush delicate cacti. There were no other cars in sight. I threw some jerky, water and other supplies in a backpack, hauled two 4-foot-long wooden posts over my shoulder, grabbed a shovel and headed toward the rocky cliff that zigzags parallel to the road. In a small clearing not far from the highway, I dug a shallow hole and dropped in the first post, stacking stones around the base so it wouldn’t topple over, as the BLM recommends.
Using a range finder and handy GPS phone application, Raff and I carefully plotted the distance between each corner as we erected the three other posts. The two southern markers were placed a few hundred feet up the rocky hillside and the climb provided sweeping views of White Canyon, Found Mesa and far-off Cheese Box Butte.
I was fairly confident we’d staked a near-perfect 20-acre rectangle. I still had to name it though. We settled on “Cheese Box Vista Mine,” a tribute to a distinctive rock formation that had recently been cut from the protected site.
I scrawled my information on the back of a page from a mining packet I’d been given earlier in the week at the BLM office in Monticello, Utah, and attached the notice to the northeast corner post. Fearing my tape job might not hold up in inclement weather, I put a second note inside a plastic container I attached to the marker.
I had no gold nuggets or uranium ore to show for the effort. Nonetheless, it felt like successful prospecting. I ultimately decided against filling out the paperwork with BLM to actually move forward on a claim, since the story was less about mining than the archaic process that allows pretty much anyone to do it. Besides, as easy as it is to obtain one, a claim on its own gets you very little.
The claim doesn’t mean you own the land, nor does it grant you permission to develop a mine. The purpose, rather, is to establish priority over any other prospectors who might be after what’s in that ground. But anything beyond panning in a creek or poking around in the dirt with a pickax requires time and money that only serious miners ― those convinced they can turn a profit ― are likely to spend.
“It’s easy to get mineral rights; it’s hard to do any kind of mining,” said Tyler Hall, a jewelry store owner in Monticello who has a mining claim just east of Blanding. “And it’s extremely hard to use any kind of equipment.”
When I spoke with him, Hall said he had been trying for the better part of a year to obtain a permit that would allow him to take tourists panning for gold. The hoops he’s had to jump through are “ginormous,” Hall said.
Hall argues that mining too often gets a bad rap. While the mining law hasn’t changed, there’s been a shift in mentality, from simply encouraging people to make a living to focusing on environmental protection and wildlife resources.
“This idea that mining is going to destroy this heritage and land is just not true,” he said. “I think it’s a good thing. I don’t want any of that to be lost.”
The General Mining Act of 1872, which President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law, sought to incentivize prospecting and spur economic development in the West. The West is now thoroughly developed, but the law remains on the books, with only minor amendments.
Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) is among those who argue it’s time to bring the law into the 21st century. He’s repeatedly introduced legislation to overhaul what he’s called an “antiquated sweetheart deal” for mining companies. While the law helped grow America, it “did nothing to protect the environment and did nothing to require mines to clean up the mess,” he said back in 2015, a few months after the devastating Gold King mine spill in Colorado.
Unlike the coal, oil and gas industries, which pay a 12.5 percent royalty on fossil fuels they extract from federal land, hardrock miners pay nothing to produce gold, silver, platinum or uranium. Several attempts to overhaul the law in recent years have failed, in part thanks to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), a fierce ally of the mining industry who fought to block establishing royalty rates.
Jim Allen, a natural resources lawyer in Tucson, Arizona, who represents numerous mining companies, told HuffPost that the mining law is “written backwards from how things are done today.” Historically, claims were staked after a discovery was made. But, as Allen put it, “the days of locating an ore deposit by finding a vein of ore on the surface, and following it into the earth, are gone.” Prospectors with pickaxes have been replaced by geophysicists with technology that can identify potential deposits thousands of feet deep. Today, the discovery of a valuable mineral — necessary for a claim to be valid — often comes after a miner stakes the ground and files a location notice.
BLM’s decisions to greenlight mining operations hinge on a claimant’s ability to prove a discovery was made and “show a reasonable prospect of making a profit from the sale of minerals.” Without that, a person leaves themselves prone to having their mineral rights seized by another party, which is commonly known as “claim-jumping.”
Allen added that the mining law is rooted in a policy of developing resources and based on the 19th-century notion that people really want land because they are planning to open mines. But, he said, “there are many reasons why that policy of free disposition may not serve the nation’s interests today.”
The mining companies Allen represents wouldn’t lose much sleep if the 1872 law were rescinded or reformed, he said ― as long as its replacement doesn’t require royalties.
In 2017, an estimated $75.2 billion worth of minerals were produced in the U.S. — up 6 percent from the previous year. And the Trump administration has prioritized boosting domestic production of minerals it has identified as “critical” to the economic and national security. A draft list of 35 minerals includes both uranium and vanadium, a malleable metal also found in the White Canyon area of southeastern Utah.
When Trump signed his executive order last year directing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review more than two dozen national monument designations, he boasted that he was ending “another egregious abuse of federal power” and opening up the protected area to “tremendously positive things.”
Many expected that meant mining and drilling. And recent media reports have done little to allay environmentalists fears. The Washington Post uncovered a lobbying campaign from uranium company Energy Fuels to shrink the monument. And The New York Times obtained emails that show potential future oil extraction played a central role in the decision.
The administration maintains that the rollback was not about energy. “I’m a geologist,” Zinke said at a congressional budget hearing earlier this month. “I can assure you that oil and gas in Bears Ears was not part of my decision matrix. ... And there is no proposal that I’ve seen to mine uranium in the former area of Bears Ears.”
The Utah Department of Natural Resources has said the original monument has “very little energy potential” and “minimal” potential for uranium production. But officials in San Juan County, where the monument is located, see things quite differently.
“The area in and around Bears Ears is rich in oil, gas, coal, and uranium deposits,” the county wrote in a recent court filing, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. The county is looking to intervene in one of several lawsuits that tribes and environmental groups have brought against the Trump administration in an effort to block the monument rollbacks.
As of April 27, only one new claim on land cut from Bears Ears had been recorded with the local BLM office. It was staked by two public lands activists, Morgan Sjogren and Michael Versteeg, who wrote about the experience in a blog post on the website of outdoor retailer REI.
It was an experiment, they said, to see if a claim could serve as “an unusual public lands preservation tactic,” a way to keep other miners out.
As the activists showed, one can stake a claim without any intention of mining and hold onto it, presumably for years, as long as they are willing to pay the annual maintenance fee. But again, without a mineral discovery, the claim can be jumped. They ultimately concluded it wasn’t an effective method.
There has not been a land rush in Bears Ears in the months since Trump’s rollback. This is likely because the 2016 monument designation was not unexpected, meaning anyone interested in staking a claim there had plenty of opportunities to do so. And even the designation did not invalidate existing claims or leases.
That there appears to be no immediate threat of mining or drilling here matters little to environmentalists, however, as Trump’s decision still opens the door for the activities the monument was meant to prevent. They worry Bears Ears could become a target, for instance, if the price of uranium or natural gas were to rebound. Any activity at all could disrupt the largely unspoiled landscape, including the more than 100,000 cultural and archaeological sites such as ancient rock art panels, granaries, burials and well-preserved cliff dwellings. The area is considered sacred to the five Native American tribes that petitioned the Obama administration to grant the area monument status.
At a storytelling session in March, tribal members spoke about their connections to the landscape and their opposition to new mining and development. “Losing Bears Ears to a cloud of industrial smoke from extraction and mining does not keep that preservation of life for us,” Tara Benally, of the Navajo Nation, told HuffPost.
Addressing public concern that the rollback threatens these resources, Lisa Bryant, a spokeswoman for the BLM’s Canyon Country District, said the agency “still must comply with laws, regulations, existing resource management plans, and land use designations,” and that there are additional processes to go through before development can begin.
Five days after staking my claim, I returned to the site to pull the posts. I broke a sweat scurrying up a dry drainage to my southwest corner marker, then stopped to take in the familiar view. I thought about the Puebloans who had inhabited this area for hundreds of years, and the cliff dwellings and rock art the surrounding canyons and buttes might contain. If only there were more time to explore.
I was sitting on the edge of a compromise that the Trump administration conveniently did not mention during its review. Local tribes had petitioned for a monument much bigger than the one designated in 2016, but President Barack Obama opted not to include the uranium-rich area of Red Canyon just over the ridge, the site of the Daneros mine.
The Obama administration specifically gave Energy Fuels room to grow, should the market one day provide the incentive to do so. Still, Utah’s Republican delegation accused him of an “unprecedented land grab” and vowed to lobby Trump to make things right. The president wasted little time answering their calls, stripping more than 1 million acres from Bears Ears, despite the pleas of tribes who fought for protections and the overwhelming public support for keeping the monument intact. In February, Energy Fuels Resources received federal approval to significantly expand the mine.
Trump paved a path for the mining economy to once again flourish in this part of southern Utah. He ushered in what he promised would be “a bright new future of wonder and wealth.” And so far, the only “prospectors” to show up are two conservation activists and a couple of curious journalists.