A 19th century law gives miners billions, the public pennies
From the executive summary:
The scandal of patenting has been hidden from public scrutiny by the very federal agency charged with protecting the public interest. The Bureau of Land Management, an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior, conducts the patent process in secret, discouraging public participation or public comment. The Bureau makes decisions involving billions of dollars on the basis of documents it refuses to release to the public. Open decision-making is taken for granted at other agencies, even other areas of BLM — but it is not tolerated in the patent process.
The General Mining Law of 1872 governs hardrock mining (gold, silver, copper, platinum, etc.) on Western public lands. According to the Mining Law, mineral development is the “highest and best use” of public land, regardless of any other competing land uses. Anyone can enter public lands to explore for hardrock minerals. Upon finding recoverable minerals, anyone can file a mineral claim to extract and sell them.
Patenting is the Mining Law's centerpiece. A company that discovers a valuable mineral deposit on its claim can “patent,” or gain fee title to, the land for a price not to exceed S5.00 per acre. Upon patent issuance, title to public lands is transferred to private ownership. However, patenting is not necessary to mine on public lands. Many companies choose not to patent and operate hardrock mines on public land without difficulty.
Those companies are permitted to extract and sell hardrock minerals, and are not required by the Mining Law to pay royalties or any other form of compensation to the American public.