In addition to trappers taking beaver from our streams, homesteaders taking advantage of open lands out west, and cattlemen that had overgrazed Texas tapping our green meadows, my area of the state of New Mexico was settled in part by miners looking for the Mother Lode.
They were often the Johnny-come-too-lates for the California Gold Rush. Some never made it that far or once there found no gold already not staked out and returned with the second rush to Colorado. And were too late there. Yes, there is gold in these hills but not in the rich veins that make mining it profitable.
There is also an abundance of public lands and therefore subject to the Mining Act of 1872.
The General Mining Act of 1872 is a United States federal law that authorizes and governs prospecting and mining for economic minerals, such as gold, platinum, and silver, on federal public lands. This law, approved on May 10th, 1872, codified the informal system of acquiring and protecting mining claims on public land, formed by prospectors in California and Nevada from the late 1840s through the 1860s, such as during the California Gold Rush. All citizens of the United States of America 18 years or older have the right under the 1872 mining law to locate a lode (hard rock) or placer (gravel) mining claim on federal lands open to mineral entry. These claims may be located once a discovery of a locatable mineral is made. Locatable minerals include but are not limited to platinum, gold, silver, copper, lead, zinc, uranium and tungsten. For more see Wikipedia.
I don't know for sure but I think the law was enacted so the railroads would have ore to haul back. And it seemed like a good thing for those little people looking to strike it rich. But today the law is being exploited by major mining corporations and not all of them are based in the United States. There is currently a Canadian firm exploring for uranium along the edge of the Grand Canyon. If it is successful it can mine all it wants and not have to share profits or its find with the United States.
Environmentalists have been seeking to repeal the Mining Act for decades. I frankly like that I can take my gold pan and head for hills when the mood strikes me. So maybe just an amendment would be nice. Mining can rape the land and these days we have more efficient methods to do that at an ever faster pace.
I am reminded of looking off the edge of Wild Horse Mesa in Utah a few years back and seeing a mining operation at its base. Not the view I had in mind to record with my camera. It took geological forces millennium to build some of the scenic wonders of the west. It can take an open pit copper mine company only a decade to turn it into a big hole that can never be filled.