November 24, 2005

Accusations of land grab in budget bill

Malls, homes feared on hundreds of thousands of acres of public forests and deserts

Zachary Coile, Chronicle Washington Bureau
San Francisco Chronicle

Washington -- California lawmakers and environmental groups warn that a provision in the House budget bill could allow individuals and companies to develop hundreds of thousands of acres of desert, forest or other public lands across the state.

The measure could affect areas from Death Valley to Lake Tahoe , where public lands subject to active mining claims could be converted to private ownership. The land could be mined or used to build homes, ski resorts, shopping malls or other commercial development.

Supporters of the provision -- which ends a 1994 ban on mining land purchases imposed by Congress and the Clinton administration -- claim it would help rural communities make the transition to new types of development after their local mines have closed.

"Without this measure, the jobs and infrastructures of these communities can literally disappear when a mine closes," said Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., the chief sponsor of the measure, whose state has a large mining industry.

But opponents see a deeper agenda aimed at privatizing vast stretches of public land across the West and boosting the profits of mining companies, developers and individual claim holders.

"With a wink and a nod, this budget proposal sells not just the minerals under these federal lands but the pristine lands that just happen to be located near high-priced ZIP codes," said Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the House Resources Committee.

Rahall said nothing would stop claim holders who have "patented," or taken over ownership of public land -- for the purpose of mining -- from using the land to build fast food restaurants, Wal-Mart stores or condominiums.

Supporters and opponents of the measure differ sharply on how much land across the West could be affected.

Gibbons and House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, who added the provision to the budget bill, cited Interior Department estimates that 360,000 acres of federal land meet the requirements for a sale and that only a third of those lands are likely to be purchased. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the sales would raise $158 million.

But environmental groups point out that much more acreage could be put up for sale under the new rules.

The Environmental Working Group, which has collected mining claims data, estimates that 5.7 million acres of public land is subject to mining claims and could be purchased by the claim holders. Nevada has the largest area of public lands with mining claims ( 2.5 million acres), followed by Arizona (641,000 acres) and California (635,000 acres.)

In California, the largest concentration of mining claims is in San Bernardino County, but the claims extend from the Gold Country to the state's border with Oregon. Even Marin County has a small mining claim on 21 acres close to Highway 1 near the town of Inverness.

The provision in the budget bill seeks to change the 1872 General Mining Law, frontier-era legislation that allows any individual to stake a claim on public land that might contain valuable minerals or precious metals such as gold or silver.

Critics have long called for reforming the law, noting that it charges claim holders 1870s-era prices -- $2.50 to $5 per acre -- for land that can yield big payoffs. In 1994, Congress instituted a moratorium on "patenting" mining claims after a Canadian company was able to buy 1,900 acres of land in Nevada containing an estimated $10 billion in gold even though it paid the government less than $10,000.

The legislation by Gibbons would lift this moratorium on purchasing public lands. The provision would also raise the cost of the land to $1,000 an acre or fair market value, whichever is higher -- which proponents say would raise more money for the federal Treasury.

Critics point out the measure appears to weaken requirements that mining claim holders prove there are valuable minerals beneath the ground before approving a sale of land. Sponsors of the measure say the requirement -- called the "Law of Discovery-Prudent Man Test" -- has simply moved to a different portion of the bill.

The mining provision was not part of the budget bill approved by the Senate and will be one of a number of contentious issues as a conference committee of the House and Senate try to reach agreement on a single bill.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., sent a letter to Pombo earlier this month urging him to drop the provision, which she said could allow claim holders to buy big parcels of land, especially in national forests and Bureau of Land Management lands.

"It appears that potentially millions of acres of national forests and (bureau) lands would now be required to be put up for sale by the Interior Secretary merely because they contained 'mineral deposits' -- a term undefined in your bill -- or even 'depleted' mineral deposits," Feinstein said.

Feinstein said the measure could affect public lands in or near the Mojave National Preserve and Death Valley, as well as 40,000 acres with active mining claims in the Tahoe National Forest and west of Lake Tahoe.

Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for Pombo, said the legislation specifically bans land sales in national parks, wilderness areas, national monuments, national conservation areas, national wildlife refuges, national recreation areas, wild and scenic rivers and national trails. The bill would apply to other public lands not protected by those designations.

A spokesman for the National Mining Association said the industry is willing to accept higher costs -- $1,000 or more per acre -- in return for the government lifting the moratorium on buying lands where they have mining claims.

"The industry will be better off because we will be able to attract investment by allowing more lands to be privatized -- specifically lands that might have valuable mining claims and where investors might be reassured that they will be able to own the land rather than essentially operating under the government's heel," said Luke Popovich, the association's spokesman.

Most mining companies plan to use the land only for mining -- not real estate development -- although Popovich predicted there would be few cases where mining claim lands would be transformed into homes or ski resorts.

"It could happen," Popovich said. "There will be instances where a resort -- perish the thought -- that might employ people would take up some of the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of acres of federal land. Even if it does happen, in the minds of many people that will be a good thing."