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
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
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
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
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