NOEL KING, HOST:
Earlier this month, the Trump administration opened up a million acres of public land in California for mining. To get the mining rights for that land, you have to follow America's mining law, which dates back to 1872. Julia Simon of our Planet Money podcast went out West to learn how the law works.
JULIA SIMON, BYLINE: The first thing to do if you want to make a mining claim - find a valuable mineral. In my case, I went looking for gold...
(SOUNDBITE OF GOLD PANNING)
SIMON: ...In the Plumas National Forest in Northern California with a guy named Josh Reinke. We put a pan full of mud in a mountain stream.
We've got goldish-colored (ph) things.
JOSH REINKE: Don't jinx it.
SIMON: We hold the pan up to the sunlight, and we see it glittering.
(Whispering) Oh, my goodness.
REINKE: Some small - really small pieces. See that right there?
SIMON: Yeah. Oh, I see it.
REINKE: That's certainly a little piece of gold.
SIMON: It's gold.
SIMON: It's gold. So can I say it?
REINKE: You can say it.
REINKE: You found it.
SIMON: Next step - stake a claim. We got a stick...
(SOUNDBITE OF PLANTING STICK)
SIMON: ...Put it in the dirt, put a paper on the stick, says who we are.
And this is our discovery monument.
REINKE: It is. Right here.
SIMON: For about $15 an acre, we can mine for a year. If this sounds like a system used by miners during the Gold Rush, that's because it was. William Morris Stuart was a miner, became a senator. He wrote the Mining Act of 1872. But even then, Congress was asking - should we really be giving away these mining rights? Shouldn't we make more money? Stewart said, no. We want to encourage mining, get people to go West, find gold, settle down, keep it cheap. Today, we're still fighting about this law.
TOM UDALL: It's a rip-off.
SIMON: Tom Udall, Senator from New Mexico.
UDALL: Just think about it. The public owns this land. This is a resource sitting on public land.
SIMON: Udall has many issues with the mining law, but a big one is the fact that mining companies don't pay royalties to the federal government for mining on public land.
UDALL: In 2011, I asked the GAO all for the numbers on how much the taxpayers are being shortchanged. They couldn't say. Not only do the hard rock mining companies not pay, they don't disclose. And under current law, they don't have to.
SIMON: Part of the reason this is our current law - retired Senator Harry Reid. Reid's dad was a miner. He used to follow him into the mines as a kid. When Reid went to Washington, he realized if I didn't defend the mining law, senators who didn't understand mining would change it. So he went to the mining companies and he told them to get organized.
HARRY REID: I met them in Reno, Nev., all the bosses. And I told them you're going to have to start dirtying your hands and coming to Washington and meeting with some of these senators.
SIMON: Which senators would you tell them to meet with?
REID: Well, the ones that weren't on my side.
SIMON: Reform did come up over the 30 years Reid was in the Senate, but...
REID: I was there. You - they couldn't change the law. So I agreed - and I wouldn't agree.
SIMON: (Laughter) Why are you smiling?
REID: Well, that's - the law went - didn't go anyplace.
SIMON: And it wouldn't because you wouldn't let it.
REID: Well, I didn't like it.
SIMON: Last January, Harry Reid left the Senate and last fall, Tom Udall co-sponsored a bill to reform the mining law, introduce a two to five percent royalty. It could raise hundreds of millions of dollars a year. But it hasn't gone far. The mining lobby that Harry Reid helped build is still around. Julia Simon, NPR News.
(SOUNGBITE OF VUREZ' "GLORIOUS CRYSTAL GLEAM [MMX2 - CRYSTAL SNAIL STAGE]")
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