Shale Country Real Estate
Although prospectors staked more than 30,000 claims on over 4 million acres throughout Shale Country during the first rush, they focused on escarpments and elevations where the dark-colored rock was exposed or easily accessible. Very few mining claims were filed in the Piceance Creek Basin, where the rich deposits were generally too deep for early prospectors to discover. But the presence of water in this arid country did attract homesteaders.
Both before and during the early-twentieth-century boom, settlers filled in the valley bottoms along the Piceance Creek and its tributaries and set about the hard work of proving up their homesteads. Those who successfully made a go of it won the title to their land, and through this homesteading process much of the valley land passed into private hands. However, not every homesteader received the same title to the land. Those who filed before the passage of the Stock Raising Homestead Act of 1916 obtained the deed to both the land's surface and any minerals beneath. Those who filed after 1916 settled on split estates, where only the surface of the land belonged to the homesteader and the government retained rights to any minerals found beneath, with access to and development of those mineral governed by federal mining law. 12
In the years after the boom faded, a small cadre of farsighted and deep-pocketed speculators and energy companies set about purchasing claims throughout Shale Country, securing potentially rich holdings in anticipation of a day when oil shale could be worked profitably. They bought, often at bargain prices, many of the mineral claims that had been filed before the 1920 leasing regime. And as prospectors began to discover some of the deep, rich deposits under the valley bottomlands, some of these investors also purchased homestead deeds that predated the 1916 split estate system.
Although these purchases were sometimes islands of private property surrounded by a sea of federal land, too small for large commercial-scale development on their own (especially in the days when massive underground or open pit mines seemed the only feasible way to get at the shale), their acquisition gave the buyer a foothold in Shale Country. Through land-swaps with the government or other landholders, these individual parcels could be parlayed into consolidated blocks of land that promised to become major oil shale fields in the future. These savvy investors, true believers that oil shale would one day be a significant part of the nation's energy picture, intended to be well-positioned to take advantage when that day came.
In the end, after all the hullabaloo and heartbreak, this large-scale transfer of valuable tracts of resource-rich land out of the public domain and into private ownership, facilitated by early mining and homesteading claims, proved to be the most significant legacy of the first oil shale boom. Today private property owners, mainly energy companies, control about 20% of the land that overlies oil shale deposits in the Piceance Basin and the associated mineral rights - enough, according to some, to get an oil shale industry off the ground without the incentive of federal leases.13