MAC: Mines and Communities

Feature - US update on Western land grab

Published by MAC on 2005-11-22

Feature - US update on Western land grab

By Planet Ark

22nd November 2005

WASHINGTON - Senate Democrats are vowing to kill a House plan they say would allow mining companies to buy millions of acres of western federal land, including some within California's Yosemite and Joshua Tree national parks, at cheap prices.

The House voted to update a century-old mining law to sell or "patent" western land to the industry for $1,000 per acre, or fair market value. Environmental groups say that could open up as many as 350 million acres of public lands to real estate speculators and oil companies, not just mining firms.

The land sale, introduced by Nevada Republican Jim Gibbons, was included in a $50 billion budget-cutting bill the House narrowly approved last week. It was not in the Senate's $35 billion version of a budget reduction bill.

Next month, House and Senate negotiators will try to reconcile both bills into a final one and some Senate Democrats say they are determined to delete the land sale measure.

"It would result in a deeply troubling outcome," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat. He described the House plan as a "fire sale" that would hurt national parks and forests and have "far-reaching negative consequences."

Congress has been scurrying to find new ways to cut spending with the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina draining the government's coffers. The mining provision would bring in an estimated gross of $426 million in revenue over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said the land sale "could allow claimants to carve out numerous private enclaves within our public lands."

A key issue is whether the bill would allow the sale of 1,000 acres of existing land claims within national parks.

Brian Kennedy, spokesman for the House Resources Committee headed by California Republican Richard Pombo, called that assertion "absolutely, positively, patently false." A section of the bill explicitly bars the sale of land in national parks, national wildlife refuges, and other federal wilderness areas, Kennedy said.

Democrats and environmentalists say the bill language also allows the sale of "existing claims" -- which includes about 1,000 acres of land within a few of national parks. More worrisome is 2 million acres of existing claims located within five miles of national parks, national forests and wildlife refuges throughout the West, they say.


The House legislation dusted off and updated an 1872 mining law, according to supporters.

To help settle the US West, Congress passed the law to make it easy to stake a claim for the purpose of extracting minerals. Those who wanted to own land claims had to take the additional step of "patenting," or buying it, for $2 to $5 per acre. Some people laid claims to land that was later incorporated into national parks. And not all claim areas became mining sites -- some have sat untouched for a century.

In 1994, the government halted the sale of public lands for mining, which were still selling for $5 an acre or less. The new House bill would permit anyone who had a claim before the ban to patent the land, but pay at least $1,000 an acre.

The Environmental Working Group said federal land bought under the proposed law -- in or out of national parks -- could be resold for a quick profit or used for non-mining purposes.

"Big box (store) developers, condo developers, why wouldn't they? What would stop them?" said Lauren Sucher, a spokeswoman for Environmental Working Group.

Kennedy said costs would prevent such maneuvers.

The bill requires a company to prove that "mineral development" once occurred on a piece of land or to set up operations related to extracting minerals in order to buy the patent. Corporations are not going to spend dollars to create sham mining operations, Kennedy said.

"You're telling me that a real estate company is going to put up all that, go through all that process, risk all of that capital, knowing full well the whole time that for them to flip it for something other than mining would constitute defrauding the federal government?" he said. "That's just dumb."

The notion, though, is not so farfetched.

Before the 1994 ban, the Government Accountability Office found patented sites throughout the West had been turned into housing developments and resorts. In 1974, the GAO said that 80 percent of sites it visited "showed no evidence that minerals had been extracted" and patented land was used for non-mining purposes. Supporters say if companies do build other businesses where mines have been depleted, they are helping the rural economy.

"Without this measure, the jobs and infrastructures of these communities can literally disappear when a mine closes," said Rep. Gibbons. "We cannot allow the scare tactics of a few anti-energy, anti-development and anti-private property special interests to threaten thousands of American families."

Because the land would be privatized, supporters say regulating it would become the responsibility of the owners, saving the federal government many costs.

This is what worries many critics.

"Once the land is patented it's that way forever. It's private land," said Lauren Pagel of activist group Earthworks.



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