The history of Mineral County is steeped in the tales of rich gold and silver mines. From the first mining efforts in the early 1860s to the present day, mining has been important to the people who first settled here and to those who now live in this county. Today, people still actively work mining claims, which are an important part of the county economy and heritage.
The development of the early gold and silver mines stimulated the development of agriculture. Trail herds of cattle from Texas, California, and Oregon were driven in and sheep were introduced to provide beef and mutton for the miners. As ranchers began to develop base properties as permanent sites for livestock, they recognized that transient trail-drives endangered the quality of their range. Early Mineral County ranchers sought the help of Congress to protect the quality of the range in the early 1900s, some thirty years before the Taylor Grazing Act was passed. Access rights-of-way and water rights were historically critical to the early settlers, and they remain critical today. The federal government manages 80.8% of the 782,080 acres of land in Mineral County. The state of Montana owns 2.8% and corporate timber and real estate interests hold 8% leaving only 5% in private ownership. As a result, a map of the county shows a checkerboard of federal, state, and private land. Rights-of-way across the state and federal lands is necessary for many private landowners to access their property, to use their water rights, and to exercise their grazing rights.
In 1866 Congress enacted a law to provide and protect access across federal lands for miners and others reliant upon water to earn their livelihood. That act, Revised Statute 2477 (RS 2477), provided simply that, the rights-of-way for the construction of highways over public land, not reserved for public uses, is hereby “granted.” Mineral County miners and ranchers developed such rights-of-way in the form of roads and trails which continue to be used today. The Montana Mineral County Resource Use Plan April 2004 Page 4 Legislature passed a statute in 1993 establishing a procedure by which counties could provide for recording of such rights-of-way established under the 1866 law. Mineral County’s Board of Commissioners has been working to determine and document the rights-of-way on public lands in the county that fall under RS 2477. Early farmers and ranchers established water rights through the doctrine of prior appropriation. The earliest adjudicated rights in Mineral County date to 1863. As subsequent efforts were made to control the water, landowners brought suit to protect their prior appropriation rights. Today, holders of water rights are still struggling to preserve their rights against encroachment.
The beneficial use of natural resources has been the basis for Mineral County’s economy, custom and culture, even if technology, mechanization and markets have altered the means of production and marketing of these resources from their historic beginnings. Mining, timber harvesting, ranching, and farming provide the heritage of the county’s residents, and they continue those activities today. Life was never easy for the settlers of this county. This is a land in which nature plays the upper hand and access is difficult. The early settlers of this land worked hard to establish their livelihood, and today’s residents work equally hard to maintain that livelihood. The early settlers were diligent in pursuing legal protection of their property rights. Today’s residents continue with that diligence.
In recent years, increased recreational use of the land in Mineral County has grown rapidly. Montanans and out-of-state visitors have flocked to the county for recreation: snowmobiling, skiing, horseback riding, hiking, prospecting, fishing, hunting, camping and other outdoor activities. The potential for conflict between these users and those residents who make their living on the land is great. Cooperative efforts on both sides have kept the conflict to a minimum. Diverse recreational activities have resulted in uses that directly affect open-space issues in Mineral County.