November 29, 2005

Mining bill would dig up public lands

Corporate Giveaway
OUR VIEW: National parks in San Bernardino County could be adversely affected

San Bernardino Sun

We must rely on the Senate to correct the House's misguided attempt to sell off public lands at bargain prices to mining and development interests.

The five-year budget-cutting plan passed this month by the House would allow the U.S. Department of the Interior to sell some of the West's most scenic public lands under the guise of mining "reform." The public would forfeit recreational opportunities and resource-management rights, and the properties would be subject to land speculation.

Specifically, the legislation lifts an 11-year moratorium on mining "patents," the sale of public land to mining companies, but it eliminates the traditional requirement that the land actually be used for mining, and that's where the trouble comes in. Furthermore, it allows the purchase of new claims that are adjacent to any existing mining claims.

Those provisions raise the specter that Californians could see suburban sprawl or gaudy mansions on once protected Sierra Nevada mountainsides and foothills. Or vacation homes and motels plopped down within or on the outskirts of Death Valley National Park, which is studded with hundreds of old mining claims.

The mining amendments, by California Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, and Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., would eliminate the requirement under the antiquated 1872 Mining Law that companies wanting to patent claims have to prove there are minerals on the land. The land purchased from the government could be resold or used for any purpose.

That's an invitation for condo developers and land speculators to grab federal public lands for a pittance. And oil and gas companies, which pay federal royalties of 12.5 percent could end up paying no royalties.

Up to 6 million acres of public lands, where 300,000 active mining claims are staked now, could be patented. The Bureau of Land Management estimates as many as 15 million to 20 million acres potentially could be affected.

California 's mountains and deserts could be hit hard.

San Bernardino County has more than 5,700 mining claims on federal land, totaling more than 175,000 acres. Mojave National Park has 432 unpatented claims that total nearly 12,000 acres. Death Valley National Park has 36 unpatented claims, totaling more than 600 acres.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., wrote Pombo to ask him to withdraw his amendments from the budget bill. There are no such provisions in the Senate version.

The Pombo-Gibbons mining amendments represent a corporate giveaway of public land and federal revenue. We urge Sens. Feinstein and Barbara Boxer to lead the effort to remove the mining amendments from the House-Senate conference bill before the legislation is sent to President Bush.