A group of Colorado natives and environmentalists are trying to revive a 2004 lawsuit against mining company Phelps Dodge Corp., and the decision could affect the way private mining companies purchase public land.

The town of Crested Butte, Colo., Gunnison County and the High Country Citizens Alliance argued before a three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Jan. 9 that a third party has the right to challenge the sale of public lands to private companies.

The crux of the issue is an 1872 mining law, which offers land and all patenting rights at $5 an acre, provided that the buyer prove that the mine will be profitable in the current market.

The High Citizens Alliance claims that a mining company can’t prove profitability because molybdenum prices plummeted in the early 1980s and have not recovered since.

The groups argue that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) violated federal law when they issued patents for 155 acres of public land to Mt. Emmons Mining Co., a subsidiary of Phelps Dodge, in April 2004.

However, in 2004 the court found that the 1872 law prevents third parties from challenging such grants unless they have a competing claim to ownership. In the recent arguments, the Colorado groups are arguing that the mining law doesn’t exclude third parties and a 1946 law allowing judicial review of federal agency decisions gives them a right to challenge the initial sale.