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Center for Biological Diversity v. United States Fish and Wildlife Service

ELR Citation: 49 ELR 20130
Nos. CV-17-00475-TUC-JAS (L), CV-17-00576-TUC-JAS (C), and CV-18-00189-TUC-JAS (C), (D. Ariz., 07/31/2019) (Soto, J.)

A district court vacated the the U.S. Forest Service's approval of an open-pit copper mining operation in the Coronado National Forest that included the dumping of approximately 1.9 billion tons of mine waste across over 2,000 acres of the forest. Environmental groups and tribes argued the Service misapplied the Mining Law of 1872, the Organic Act of 1897, and the Multiple Use Act of 1955 in deciding to approve the operation, and thus failed to properly exercise its broad discretion and authority to protect the national forest. The Mining Law grants exclusive property rights to miners who have valid unpatented mining claims on lands—even federal lands—with an underlying valuable mineral deposit. The court found the Service made a crucial error when it accepted that the company's unpatented claims covering those 2,000 acres were valid despite geological evidence that the land contained primarily common sand, stone, and gravel. The Service asserted it did not have jurisdiction to determine the validity of the claims because jurisdiction lay with BLM. But the court found the Service's lack of jurisdiction to issue a final decision on the validity of the claims did not mean the Service had no obligation to assess the mine's surface rights. The Service also asserted, relying on the Organic Act and Multiple Use Act, that since the mine clearly had valuable mineral deposits underlying the mine pit, it thus had a right to dump waste on the 2,000 acres because it was reasonably incident to its valid mining claims. But the court found those statutes did not create freestanding mining rights outside the specific parameters of the Mining Law, and that because the record before the Service reflected that the claims to the 2,000 acres were invalid under the Mining Law, the Service improperly found that the mine had the right to dump waste on that land. It therefore vacated and remanded the Service's approval.