By Michael Burnside, June 17, 2005

In 1897, Congress passed the Organic Act, which established the National Forest System and the purposes for which it would be managed. In regard to mining, the 1897 Act said that while the Forest Service couldn’t prohibit activities reasonably incidental to mining under the 1872 General Mining Law, the Forest Service was authorized to create reasonable rules to regulate the adverse effects of mining activities on the National Forests, and miners had to comply with those rules. In 1974, the Forest Service finally wrote those regulations. Since 1974 was the first attempt at rule making to oversee the surface effects of mining, the rules had imperfections and there were concerns over the years about their interpretation and application. But the Forest Service was largely consistent in how it interpreted them and in the manual direction it issued to apply its 36 CFR 228A regulations to minimize adverse environmental impacts from mining activities. In short, the Forest Service logically focused on the likely impacts of proposed mining activities, and required miners to submit plans of operations for all activities which would likely cause significant surface disturbance, regardless whether those activities involved mechanized earth moving equipment or the cutting of trees.

Activities which do not necessarily involve mechanized earth moving equipment or the cutting of trees could include construction of ore processing mills and mill sites; residential construction and occupancy; major hand excavation of holes, trenches, and pits in stream areas; road and bridge construction; disposal of mine tailings and other wastes; signing and fencing to restrict public use; diversion of water; and use of sluice boxes; storage of vehicles; and off highway vehicle use. While none of these activities may involve mechanized earth moving equipment or cutting of trees, they obviously could cause significant surface disturbance. Inability of the Forest Service to regulate such activities could result in significant impacts to NFS lands and resources and would violate the stated purpose of the 36 CFR 228A regulations to minimize adverse effects from mining. Numerous court decisions over the years, including 1981 US v. Weiss; 1989 U.S. v. Doremus; 1986 U.S. v. Brunskill; and 1990 U.S. v. Burnett; had upheld the Forest Service’s authority to apply its regulations in this manner and for this purpose.

In 2003, the judge who issued the Lex decision focused on the wording in one section of the Forest Service’s 1974 regulations and interpreted it in a manner that was directly contrary to how the Forest Service had been historically interpreting its regulation. In summary, the Judge said that based on the words the Forest Service had used in its regulations in 1974, it could not regulate operations which do not involve the use of mechanized earth moving equipment, such as bulldozers and backhoes, or cutting of trees.

As indicated previously, if this 2003 judicial interpretation of the 1974 rule had been allowed to stand, it would have overridden other language in 36 CFR Part 228 Subpart A which required miners to file a plan of operations for significant surface disturbing activities. The Lex court’s interpretation of the Forest Service’s rules conceivably could have allowed construction and operation of mills; deposition of tailings and mine waste; construction and occupation of residencies and buildings; and a long list of other examples, all without Forest Service oversight or bonding. The effect of such a broad exemption would have been contrary to Forest Service statutory authority and obligation to regulate mining on National Forests, and almost certainly would have caused a major adverse public reaction to such unregulated mining activities on public lands.

The judge who wrote the Lex decision was sympathetic with the dilemma his decision placed upon the Forest Service. The court referenced the Forest Service’s continuing authority to write regulations, and suggested that the Forest Service modify the 36 CFR 228 A regulations to fix the situation. Rather than appeal the Lex decision, which was indeed an option, the Forest Service believed the better long term solution was to do as the judge suggested and revise its regulation, which resulted in this final rule. The Forest Service used this situation as an opportunity to clarify its rules and address issues raised in the extensive public comment on the rule.

The June 6, 2005, Federal Register notice with the new rule at 36 CFR 228.4(a) and its Preamble contains several things that miners in general and small operators in particular should take note of:

1.) The Rule has been reorganized to make it flow more logically and to parallel the progression of activities from low impact or no impact to those requiring a plan of operations.

2.) The Preamble acknowledges that there is some confusion about how these regulations apply to “recreational miners”, and that some opponents to suction dredging assert that recreational mining is not legal under the mining law. The Forest Service makes it clear in the Preamble that it does not matter how operations are described, whether as recreational or commercial. As long as the operations are all reasonably incidental to mining, the same rules apply to all miners.

3.) Some members of the public have argued that a plan of operations should be required for any suction dredging operations and some miners have argued that suction dredging should be exempt from a Notice of Intent or a Plan of Operations. The Preamble explains that a “one size fits all” determination cannot be applied to suction dredging, and it must be made on a site-specific basis because of the great variability in circumstances and resource sensitivities on National Forests. Therefore it is possible that in some settings, a suction dredge operation may be exempt (perhaps under 228.4(1)(vi)) from needing a notice of intent or plan of operations and other circumstances where a Plan would be necessary if the operation would likely cause a significant surface disturbance.

4.) The new rule does not change bonding or other enforcement provisions available to the Forest Service against miners. Those remain the same as they have always been.

5.) The Preamble explains these regulations do not preclude or conflict with California State suction dredging permits, and that the state and federal permitting can and should be read together.

6.) The Forest Service has committed in the Preamble to train Forest Service mineral administrators to insure consistent interpretation and application of this new rule. In addition, the Chief of the Forest Service issued separate guidance in November 2004 that all mineral administrators must become trained and certified in the application of these regulations.

7.) The Preamble clarifies that the term “significant” as used in 36 CFR 228A is NOT used in the same way as under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The Preamble also explains the standard for determining significance under 36 CFR 228A. Any District Ranger’s decision that a proposal “…will likely cause significant disturbance of surface resources…” must be (1.) demonstrably based on past experience, direct evidence, or sound scientific projection; that would (2.) lead the District Ranger to reasonably expect the proposed operation to result in impacts to National Forest System lands that would need to be avoided or mitigated by reclamation, bonding, timing restrictions, or other measures to minimize adverse effects.

8.) The Preamble explains that stream beds in National Forests which have been adjudicated and determined to be navigable when the particular State entered the Union are exempt from Forest Service regulations. All others are subject to Forest Service regulation. Forest Service Regional Offices or the appropriate states should be able to provide a list of those streams.

9.) The Preamble explains that in spite of the original wording in the 1974 rule stating a Notice of Intent must be filed for any disturbance, careful research of the record for the 1974 rule revealed there was never any intent to require Notices of Intent for all activities which might cause a disturbance. The original intent was to require a Notice of Intent for only those operations which might (but are not likely to) cause SIGNIFICANT disturbance to surface resources and thus might require the filing of a Plan of Operations. Therefore, this final rule was changed to include the word “significant” in the context of requiring a Notice of Intent. Only operations; which might cause significant disturbance now require the filing of a Notice of Intent.

The Preamble also emphasizes that a Notice of Intent is not a regulatory instrument, permit, or “mini-plan”. A Notice of Intent is simply a notice the operator provides to the Forest Service to alert them and to help the process along, since it is in both their interests to do so.

10.) The Preamble clarifies that the trigger for a Notice of Intent is an operator’s reasonable uncertainty as to the significance of the disturbance the proposed operations will cause on National Forest System resources. If an operator reasonably concludes operations will not cause significant disturbance of NFS resources, the operator is not required to submit an NOI or POO.

The District Ranger may disagree with this and require a Plan of Operations. However, the Ranger’s decision must be based on past experience, direct evidence, or sound scientific projects that would lead the Ranger to reasonably expect the proposed operation to result in impacts to National Forest System lands that would need to be avoided or mitigated by reclamation, bonding, timing restrictions, or other measures to minimize adverse effects. Under Forest Service appeal regulations, an operator would have the right to challenge this decision.

11.) The new rule clarified and added to the list of activities exempt from filing Notices of Intent or Plans of Operation, including the following:

a.) Under the new rule, vehicle use on existing roads, removal of small mineral samples, marking and monumenting claims, and underground operations which will not cause significant surface resource disturbance, will continue to not require an NOI or POO.

b.) The new rule added specifics to the exemption from filing a Notice of Intent or Plan of Operations at 228.4 (a)(1)(ii). Gold panning, non-motorized hand sluicing, battery operated dry washers, metal detecting, and collecting of mineral specimens using hand tools have been added.

c.) The Preamble clarifies the wording in this exemption about removal of a “reasonable amount of mineral deposit for analysis and study” to mean removal of amounts consistent with commonly accepted standards for taking stream sediment samples such as those listed in the U.S. Bureau of Mines publication, “Standard Procedures for Sampling” (sample size of 200 gms.), and Peter’s “Exploration and Mining Geology” (50 to 100 gms. every 50 to 100 meters). Peters recommendation for hard rock samples is 500 gm. to 2 kg. in size.

d.) The final rule also includes a new exemption to insure that miners are not treated to a different standard than other Forest users. It provides that miners are exempt from filing a Notice of Intent or Plan of Operations when their proposed activities have effects which are not substantially different from other non-mining activities for which no prior permission or authorization is required. If the Forest Service allows activities by other Forest users without requiring a permit, and those activities have the same effects as those conducted by miners, the miners’ activities should be exempted from an NOI or POO as well.

In summary, the discussion in the Preamble is well worth reading since it explains the background and proper interpretation and intent of this new rule.