A mining claim is the right to explore for and extract minerals from a portion of land. Under the General Mining Act of 1872 (still in place today), ‘all citizens of the United States of America 18 years or older have the right… 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’. 1
So in theory, any American can prospect and mine on any of the public land in Hinsdale County, excepting wilderness areas which are exempt from this law. In reality, setting up a mine is an expensive, and risky business. The histories of almost all the mines in the vicinity of Lake City are tales of boom and bust, and this is a pattern that repeats itself across the world.
Before 1872, although legal under state and territorial law, mining in the west was illegal under federal legislation. In 1865, it was proposed that an army be sent to the West (Arizona, Colorado and California) to expel all the miners and to protect the Government’s mineral rights, and that the government itself should work the mines.
However, representatives of the West counter-argued that miners were doing useful work by settling new lands and helping commerce. And so a series of laws were passed that protected the miners’ claims.
Today many people have mining claims. The plans of these claims show rectangular strips overlaid onto dense contours, but the interaction of plan and 3D geometries has some interesting consequences.
The surface area of the claim is much greater than it appears from a plan (top-down) perspective, since the rectangular claim is draped over some very steep terrain. See this animation from Spike Productions of mining claims along the alpine loop (including the Ute Ulay).
At first sight the mountains and claims make for a very odd combination. However, when you consider that the actual mineral extraction is happening underground, it ceases to matter what the surface topography is. As a miner you can continue drilling and blasting and hoping in your rectangular cuboid space (with an irregular lid) under the mountains.