December 2005

Measure would put public lands up for sale

By Jim Mimiaga

Mining claims on public lands across the nation would be up for sale to private developers under a provision slipped into the 2006 federal budget last month.

The brief language, buried within the 830-page House spending bill, lifts the 11-year ban on selling mining claims established under the 1872 Mining Act. The net effect, environmentalists charge, could be to put public land anywhere in the nation up for sale.

“This proposal is absurd, and more people would be outraged if they knew about it,” said Dan Randolph, a coordinator with the San Juan Citizens Alliance, a Durango-based environmental group.

At press time, the bill was in conference committee, where lawmakers from the Senate and House negotiate a final bill to be sent to the President. The Senate version does not include the mining-law rewrite, and there is speculation that it will be removed before the bill is sent to George Bush.

Behind the changes are Richard Pombo, R-California, chair of the House Resources Committee, and Jim Gibbons, R-Nevada, who say it is a way to spur economic development in mining towns gone bust.

Critics charge ulterior motives, noting that Pombo is notorious in Congress for attempting to change laws in order to privatize public lands, often through the use of riders. He also is sponsoring a controversial bill to alter the Endangered Species Act [Free Press, November 2005].

If the bill is passed as is, the new law would allow the Forest Service and BLM to sell public lands with mining claims for as little as $1,000 per acre or market price, whichever is higher. Buyers would have to invest a minimum of $7,500 in mining studies on the land claimed in order to then be allowed to purchase the property.

The new law would also repeal the requirement that each claim have proven mineral requirements. Theoretically, that puts all the nation’s 350 million acres of public lands at risk for privatization, according to the National Academy of Sciences.

All House Democrats and 14 Republicans opposed the bill, but it passed the House by a vote of 217 to 215 on Nov. 18.

Congressman John Salazar (D-Colo.), and his brother, Sen. Ken Salazar, also a Colorado Democrat, have both characterized the mining-law change as a land grab for special-interest developers.

Environmentalists decry the proposed law change because it privatizes public lands and also because it removes high-impact mining and other development from public and environmental review.

“It’s not about mineral mining at all, it is about real-estate speculation and development,” Randolph charged. “We’ve been here before with Pombo’s tricky politics. A law change with such huge implications has to be a standalone bill for debate in the light of day, not slipped into a spending bill with a huge amount of other issues.”

Virtually all of Colorado’s 24 million acres of public lands could technically be up for sale if some preliminary mineral studies are completed under the new law, according to the Environmental Working Group.

Under the proposed change, existing mining claims would sell first, especially around resort areas such as Telluride and around national parks, observers predict.

According to the EWG, nationwide there are 5.7 million acres of established claims on public lands. In Colorado, 123,457 acres of current claims could be sold. Gunnison County would be most impacted by the land grab, with 22,524 acres potentially up for sale.

In a study conducted by EWG, other nearby counties with mining claims that would be immediately up for sale include Montezuma County with 227 acres situated entirely within the La Plata mountains; Dolores County, 1,024 acres along the Colorado Trail; La Plata County, 4,957 acres and San Miguel County, 6,533 acres.

Once limited studies are complete, the land can be sold, but there are no requirements that the land be mined at all, according to Pombo’s proposal.

The newly privatized land could then be sold for other development — from strip mines, logging operations and oil exploration to malls, condos, ski areas and luxury homes.

The new industry growth would not be subject to standard reviews by the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) because it would be removed from public ownership. And it would leave local communities without a say in land management and use.

Pombo’s supporters argue that selling off some public lands would be a way to reduce the projected $1.6 trillion federal deficit by $158 million over five years. However, critics maintain that his plan is a giveaway because it does not include mining companies paying royalties to the federal government for minerals extracted.

Oil and coal companies, in contrast, chip in up to 12 percent in royalties.

Pombo told the Washington Post that “it is important that more (public) land become private property. The environmental groups want the federal government to own everything.”

A more moderate mining-law update proposed by Rep. Nick J. Rahall (DW. Va.) puts an 8 percent royalty requirement for mining companies working on public lands, which would raise $350 million over five years for the federal government. The mining industry has told Congress it does not oppose a fair royalty payment.