Bill would open public land--Thousands of Acres could be privatized
Don't decant the champagne just yet over the GOP's apparent retreat over Arctic drilling. Right now, they have bigger fish to fry: the fate of America's remaining roadless areas in the lower 48! (Summary courtesy of a Northwest backwoodsman)
More than 50,000 acres of old mining claims in Washington -- including some inside Mount Rainier, Olympic and North Cascades national parks -- could be converted to private land under legislation expected to pass the U.S. House next week.
The proposal also would open up millions of acres in Washington's national forests -- and more than 350 million acres across the West -- to be newly privatized under a revision of the 1872 Mining Law tucked into a 184-page budget bill.
Critics who have dissected the language of the bill say it would make it easy to use a law passed 133 years ago to speed development of ski resorts, golf courses and the like in the backcountry today.
"It could be the biggest privatization of public lands in a hundred years," said John Leshy, a law professor considered one of the nation's experts on the mining law, who worked to limit its effect as a Clinton administration official. "This is all written in terms of mining claims, but it's really a real estate development law."
A major criticism of the 1872 law has been that it allows mining companies to take gold, platinum, silver and other valuable minerals off public land for free. Stung by public protests, the mining industry has long said it would be willing to pay a fair royalty when the law is updated.
But the legislation by pro-mining House members makes no provisions for such payment.
Carol Raulston, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, said her group did not draft the legislation but understands Congress' intent.
"A royalty would in effect be an added cost," Raulston said. "The U.S. is a high-cost producer of almost all these metals on federal land, and we've been increasingly dependent on international sources for metals we need."
The legislation was written by the House Resources Committee, whose chairman, Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., wants rural towns to turn land that has been mined into useful developments.
"The important thing here is that we're trying to provide sustainable economic development," said Matt Streit, a spokesman for the Resources Committee.
Critics, though, note that the bill would allow someone to claim 20 acres, perform $7,500 of work on it -- easily blown through in a consultant's study or some drilling work -- and then sell the land for development.
"They could turn it over to real estate speculators, foreign companies -- whoever wants to buy it," said Dusty Horwitt, an analyst for the Environmental Working Group, which makes its points through data-crunching.
EWG has analyzed all the nation's mining claims and said there are 50,632 acres covered by them in Washington. The two top holders are Canadian firms, Vancouver-based Teck Cominco with 7,830 acres and Toronto-headquartered Kinross Gold Corp. with 3,292.
Mining claims abound in Washington's backcountry. The North Cascades in particular are shot through with them.
Under the bill, much of the land managed by the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management could again be converted to private land. In 1995, that practice was halted by Congress, which has renewed the ban annually in budget legislation.
That ban was sparked by abuses in which some claims became ski resorts, housing subdivisions, hotels and even a brothel, in Nye County, Nev. The legislation under consideration would legalize that activity, critics say, although proponents say that would not happen.
"It's not realistic or honest to claim that mining companies will suddenly turn into real estate speculators ... and apply for a patent (privatizing the land) only to sell the land for a hotel or other business development," said Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., chairman of the House Resources energy and mineral resources subcommittee. He said local governments' tax base would expand through the privatization of land, providing money for schools and other needs.
A 1999 National Academy of Sciences study said about 363 million acres managed by the government would be in play if the conversions to private land were authorized again.
The bill would not allow new mining claims inside national parks or national forest areas declared wilderness. But it would allow old claims to be converted into private land.
In the past, the National Park Service has used provisions of federal land management laws to keep miners at bay in pristine areas, including Shi-Shi Beach, the stunning shoreside portion of Olympic National Park. The provisions used to battle miners there and elsewhere would be reversed or eased under the bill.
"They want to give away the taxpayers' gold," said Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., and a member of the Resources Committee. "If somebody went to Fort Knox and took gold out, they'd be in jail for the rest of their lives. But in national forests, people can take gold (under the bill) and be considered friends of the Republican Party."
A Seattle-area Republican, Rep. Dave Reichert, is portrayed by environmentalists as a "swing vote" in the mining controversy. But Reichert probably won't be doing much to stop the mining provision. He already went against the Republican House leadership to remove from the pending legislation a provision allowing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"There are other parts of the bill we're going to work on, but you can only do so much," said Mike Shields, Reichert's chief of staff. "There are some things that Dave likes about the bill. He's going to vote for it."
The bill seeks to help balance the federal budget, in part by cutting spending and in part by increasing revenue. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the mining provisions would raise about $326 million over 10 years. That compares with a projected $1.6 trillion budget deficit over the next five years.
The budget bill expected to pass the House next week would still have to be meshed with the Senate's version of the same legislation. It remains unclear how senators might react to the mining-law provisions, but environmentalists say a budget bill is no place to debate mining policy.
"This isn't even a wolf in sheep's clothing. It's a werewolf in wolf's clothing," said Roger Flynn of the Western Mining Action Project.
Saturday, November 12, 2005
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