Private Mineral Rights Complicate the Management of Eastern Wilderness Areas

RCED-84-101: Published: Jul 26, 1984. Publicly Released: Jul 26, 1984.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO studied the problems associated with private mineral rights for wilderness areas in the eastern United States. While the government has some regulatory control over mineral resource development in wilderness areas, it cannot deny the development of private mineral rights. However, such development conflicts with the legislation that created the National Wilderness Preservation System. That legislation restricted activities in wilderness areas to recreational, scenic, scientific, educational, historical, and conservation uses by the public.

GAO found that the Forest Service, which manages wilderness areas, experienced problems resulting from the possible development of private mineral rights in four wilderness areas and one potential wilderness area in the eastern United States. In one wilderness area, the owner of mineral rights for the area submitted a plan to mine coal. The Forest Service determined that such mining could be destructive to the area, and attempted to acquire the mineral rights. However, the owner and the Forest Service could not agree on a price for the rights, and the Forest Service believes that it must allow mining. Based on this and other such experiences, GAO and the Forest Service believe that such problems could increase because the Forest Service cannot legally prevent mineral development and Congress is unlikely to appropriate funds to acquire mineral rights for more wilderness areas. GAO also found that, in 1979, the Forest Service submitted recommendations to Congress regarding expansion of the wilderness system. However, the Forest Service did not consider the problems associated with private mineral rights for proposed wilderness areas. The Forest Service is currently reevaluating its wilderness recommendations.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to congressional and agency staff, several committees and subcommittees have taken the action GAO recommended. No accomplishment report will be prepared because action is difficult to verify.

    Matter: Before Congress enacts legislation to create additional eastern wilderness areas, it may wish to: (1) consider the extent and development potential of private mineral rights in these areas; and (2) specify whether the Forest Service should acquire mineral rights or allow mining in wilderness areas.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA officials are in the process of sending GAO verification that it implemented this recommendation.

    Recommendation: Because the Forest Service did not analyze the potential problems or costs associated with private mineral rights when it developed its 1979 wilderness recommendations, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Forest Service's southern and eastern regional offices to perform this type of analysis when evaluating the wilderness recommendations. This analysis should include for each area consideration of private mineral development potential, the government's ability to control mineral development if it occurs, the need to acquire private mineral rights, and a range of estimated acquisition costs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture


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