November 18, 2005

Your birthright, up for grabs

For sale cheap: 270 million acres of national forest and public land. It could happen under a budget bill being debated in Congress.

By Mike Dombeck
Editorials, Op-Ed
Los Angeles Times

ALL MY LIFE, I have introduced people to our nation's public lands, as a seasonal fishing guide in the Upper Midwest, as the head of the Bureau of Land Management and as the chief of the U.S. Forest Service — agencies that manage hundreds of millions of acres of public land. One thing I learned was that Americans love their national forests, parks and grasslands.

Americans inherit a birthright that is the envy of the world: hundreds of millions of acres scattered across all regions of the country. The public estate includes famous places, such as Yellowstone National Park, and obscure places that make up picnic spots, fishing holes and weekend getaways. It has been that way for 100 years, thanks to the conservation legacy sparked by President Theodore Roosevelt.

Unfortunately, our federal public lands are now under siege in Congress. It seems that some folks simply do not like the idea of the public owning land. These radicals and ideologues are taking advantage of the fact that Americans are preoccupied with economic insecurity, high fuel prices and a war abroad to promote their personal interests by pushing language in the federal budget bill that would put a "for sale" sign on 270 million acres of national forest and other public land.

Here's how it would work:

Congress would reinstate an obscure, obsolete portion of an 1872 mining law. This would allow mining companies to stake claims on public land and eventually take ownership through a process called "patenting." (Congress, with good reason, stopped allowing patenting in 1994.)

But the greed-driven special interest supporters aren't stopping there. They want to expand the sale of public lands to allow any individual or corporation to stake a mining claim and purchase it without having to prove that it contains minerals. This is so broadly defined as to enable developers, for example, to buy federal land at bargain-basement prices and "flip" it quickly for projects such as ski chalets or housing units.

The public would never stand for this if it were done in the open, so the provision was tucked inside the huge budget-cutting bill being considered by Congress this week. There, it was obscured by bigger issues, such as offshore drilling.

There are plenty of examples of how companies have used the 1872 mining law's patenting provisions to get their hands on public resources dirt cheap. In 1970, Frank Melluzzo "patented" — bought — public land near Phoenix for $150. Ten years later, he sold it for more than $400,000. Today, the Pointe Hilton Hotel in Phoenix sits on this mining claim. In 1983, Mark Hinton patented national forest land adjacent to the Keystone ski resort in Colorado. He later sold the parcel for more than 4,000 times what he paid for it. In 1994, American Barrick Corp. patented about 1,000 acres of public land in Nevada. That land contained more than $10 billion in gold reserves. But under the 1872 mining law, it paid only $5,000 for the land and paid not a dime in royalties to the federal Treasury.

No wonder Congress has prohibited such land deals ever since. Taxpayers were getting a raw deal.

Now a few folks in Congress want to turn back the clock. The results of these policies will be a fleecing of the American taxpayer and a cheating of future generations of public land.

Theodore Roosevelt put it this way: "The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired, in value."

That kind of leadership is why Roosevelt's face is carved on Mt. Rushmore. The leadership we are seeing in some dark corners of Congress will leave Americans with a much different legacy.


MIKE DOMBECK, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, served as the acting director of the Bureau of Land Management from 1994 to 1997 and chief of the U.S. Forest Service from 1997 to 2001.