WASHINGTON – The House agreed to reinstate sales of mining lands at cheap prices as part of its budget cut plan approved Friday, a move that could transfer into private hands up to 20 million acres of public lands on Western ranges, national forests and even national parks.
The measure would end a congressional ban that since 1994 has prevented mineral companies and individuals from submitting new applications for “patenting,” or buying, public land, including some in national forests and parks.
No such provision is contained in the Senate version of the budget measure, so the issue will be one of the items to be resolved when lawmakers return in December and try to merge the two bills. Negotiators will face pressure from Republicans and Democrats alike to ensure that hunters, anglers, hikers and other outdoors enthusiasts won’t be losing out.
“One must walk a careful line when selling public lands,” said Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont. “There are potential negative impacts on recreational opportunities in the state of Montana, and we must ensure that any sale mitigates those impacts.”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the provision would be “even more harmful for Nevada than it will be for the rest of the country,” because it may override a 1998 state law aimed at keeping profits from southern Nevada land sales in state coffers.
“It is difficult to support a minerals policy that is not carefully crafted,” Reid said.
Democrats and environmentalists say they will fight to defeat the provision.
“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 senior Democrat on the House Resources Committee. “We are literally looking at the prospect of McDonald’s, Wal-Marts, condos or any other type of commercial or private developments springing up smack dab within some of America’s most cherished units of the national park system.”
Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., however, said the measure would help rural Western communities stay afloat economically after a mine closes. “Without making these lands private, reclamation laws require companies to remove everything as they leave, including roads, buildings, power plants and power lines, water and sewer lines, and more,” he said.
Gibbons said that “special interest groups have dishonestly portrayed this measure as a giant land sale and giveaway to developers. … 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.”
The Resources Committee’s chairman, Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., also has pushed to allow more federal land to be sold to private interests through mining claims.
Interior Department officials estimate up to 20 million acres of public land could be sold under the proposed change in mining law. That includes up to 6 million acres where some 300,000 active mining claims are staked now.