Hardrock Mining: Availability of Selected Data Related to Mining on Federal Lands

GAO-19-435R Published: May 16, 2019. Publicly Released: May 16, 2019.
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Fast Facts

The federal government manages 29% of the land in the United States. We reviewed the extent to which federal agencies collected data on hardrock mining on federal land, and found that the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service are the 2 agencies that reported collecting some of this data.

For example, both agencies collect data on the value of their reclamation bonds, which ensure that mining companies restore any land disturbed by hardrock mining operations.

The Bureau of Land Management also collects data on fees from hardrock mining and the percentage of total acres where a mining operation has disturbed the surface of the land.

A hardrock gold mine on federally-managed land in Nevada



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What GAO Found

Of the six agencies in GAO's review—Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), National Park Service (NPS), Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation), and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in the Department of the Interior (Interior), and Forest Service in the Department of Agriculture—BLM and Forest Service reported collecting data on some of the 16 selected hardrock mining data elements. Specifically, BLM and Forest Service both collect data on the value of bonds held to ensure reclamation of hardrock mining operations, but differ in the other data elements they collect. For example, BLM collects data on revenues generated from hardrock mining in the form of various fees paid by operators. In addition, BLM reported collecting data on the percentages of total acres of federal lands that have a surface disturbance related to an approved mining plan, as well as where the surface disturbance has been reclaimed. In contrast, Forest Service collects data on the percentage of federal land that has been withdrawn from mineral entry by various land management statutes, according to agency officials.

BLM and Forest Service officials reported that they collect certain data elements consistent with their missions related to managing hardrock mining. The remaining four agencies reported that they do not collect these 16 data elements because they are generally not involved in hardrock mining activities on their lands.

Why GAO Did This Study

The federal government manages about 650 million acres, or 29 percent, of the 2.27 billion acres of land in the United States. Five land management agencies—BLM, FWS, NPS, Reclamation, and Forest Service—manage about 96 percent of the federal land. These agencies manage the lands under their jurisdictions for a variety of uses. For example, BLM and the Forest Service manage their lands for multiple uses, such as mining, timber, wildlife conservation, grazing, and recreation. In addition to the land management agencies, USGS provides science about mineral resources, natural hazards, and the effects of climate and land-use change, among other things.

This report examines the extent to which the six agencies collect selected hardrock mining data, and the agencies' reasons for not collecting or maintaining certain data, where applicable. To conduct this work, GAO reviewed its 2011 report on the availability and potential reliability of selected data elements at five agencies that encompassed over 100 data elements and identified 16 specific data elements related to hardrock mining. GAO then obtained information from the six agencies using a data collection instrument (DCI). Specifically, the DCI collected information on (1) whether agencies collect data on each of the 16 hardrock mining data elements; (2) where and in what format they maintain these data, if collected; and (3) reasons for not collecting or maintaining these data, if they did not do so. GAO did not determine which of these selected data elements, if any, the agencies are required to collect.

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