United States v. Curtis-Nevada Mines, Inc.
611 F.2d 1277 (9th Cir. 1980)

  • Under the General Mining Law of 1872 (30 U.S.C. 22), people were allowed to make claims to "valuable mineral deposits" they found on Federal lands.
    • Once a claim is filed, the Mining Law gives the claimant "the exclusive right of possession and enjoyment of all the surface of their locations."
      • They can also file a patent and get ownership of the land practically free.
    • Curtis never filed a patent to take title to the lands, they were still owned by the Federal government.
  • Curtis made 203 mining claims on about 13 square miles of Federal land.
    • Curtis claimed he had stumbled upon the minerals while on a deer hunting trip. He claimed that the minerals we worth 'trillions' of dollars.
  • Curtis didn't do much mining though. He just put up no-trespassing signs and barricades.
  • Hikers headed to a nearby National Forest were inconvenienced by the barricades and complained. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the US Forest Service sued to assert the rights of general public to access the land.
    • The Surface Resources Act (30 U.S.C.612(b)) says that when a mining claim is filed, the US (and its "permittees and licensees") reserve the right to use the surface of the land for access to adjacent lands (as long as they didn't interfere with any mining activities). It also reserves the right to manage "other surface resources".
    • Curtis argued that recreation was not an "other surface resource" and that hikers were not "permittees or licensees".
  • The Trial Court found for the Curtis. The US appealed.
    • The Trial Court found that based on legislative history, recreation was an "other surface resource."
    • The Court found that "permittees and licensees" were only those who has specific written permits to use the land (which the hikers did not.)
  • The Appellate Court reversed and allowed the hikers access to the land.
    • The Appellate Court found that it was traditional to allow the public to use lands within the public domain for general purposes without requiring a written permit.
    • The Court found that the Surface Resources Act was written to open up public lands to more varied uses.
    • The Court noted that Curtis wasn't actually doing any mining (he probably just made the claim so he could be the only one allowed to hunt there), so there was no way that the hikers could be interfering with his mining activities.
    • The Court suggested that if Curtis didn't like it, he could always file a patent and take title to the land.
      • Of course then he'd have to pay property taxes on it..
  • One of the reasons that the Surface Resources Act was enacted to stop people like Curtis from making fraudulent claims and using the land for non-mining person.