Bill would put federal land up for sale
Pombos legislation sparks controversy over property near Sierra Nevada foothills
By Michael Doyle, MCCLATCHY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON — Mining companies could buy up lots of California public land under a controversial bid by California Republican Richard Pombo.
The federal land would be priced starting at $1,000 an acre, led by Sierra Nevada foothills and Southern California desert. The potential purchasers could range from individual old sourdoughs to some of the worlds biggest mining conglomerates.
The idea faces intense opposition and has revived a debate both about the specific proposal and Pombos own priorities. But Pombo calls it a sensible fiscal step, and through his powerful committee position, hes folded it into a budget bill.
I think its the right policy, Pombo said.
The opposing sides disagree even on how many For Sale signs might sprout up. Pombo and the Bush administration maintain that no more than 360,000 acres nationwide would be affected.
Environmentalists counter that 635,000 acres in California alone — and 5.7 million acres nationwide — might be immediately at stake.
This legislation shows that Representative Pombo is more interested in benefiting foreign corporations, real estate speculators and oil companies than he is in helping American communities, Environmental Working Group analyst Dusty Horwitt said Wednesday.
Horwitts group last week issued a new online report, available at http://www.ewg.org, that purports to detail the public land opportunities opened up by Pombos bill.
The report concludes some 17,000 acres in El Dorado County, 13,000 acres in Mariposa County and 11,000 acres in Tuolumne County — all currently claimed for mining — could be sold in the short term.
Pombo does not like federal lands, so this is consistent with his general philosophy, said John Leshy, the Interior Departments former top lawyer.
Now a professor at the University of Californias Hastings College of Law, Leshy likened the proposal to a real estate deal that has nothing to do with mining. He further termed it ahuge change in national policy, moving the government toward disposal and away from retention of public lands.
The idea under debate revisits a public lands controversy that flared during the early 1990s but then went largely underground until recently. Under an 1872 mining law, companies and individuals can patent — or purchase — public land for $2.50 or $5 an acre.
Stung by deals in which the federal government sold off valuable land for a song, officials imposed a moratorium on the mining patents in 1994.
Now, though, congressional Republicans are pushing a wide-ranging budget reconciliation bill in response to the big federal deficit and costs related to Hurricane Katrina. House leaders currently hope for $53.9 billion in savings. GOP lawmakers also intend to push for additional tax cuts.
A one-time rancher who now chairs the House Resources Committee, Pombo contributed to the budget reconciliation package a measure claiming some $3 billion in savings or additional revenue. His committee adopted the multifaceted, 184-page measure in late October on a mostly party line 24-16 vote.
Pombos highest-profile provision would claim $2.4 billion in new revenues by allowing oil and gas drilling on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Congressional leaders now face a revolt by moderate Republicans who insist on eliminating this provision.
Although lower in profile than the Arctic drilling proposal, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the proposed mining law changes could bring in $155 million over five years. The provision would lift the current moratorium on patenting — that is, buying — public land under the 1872 law.
Instead of the $2.50 or $5 an acre specified under the 1872 law, the new provision would require buyers to pay the greater of $1,000 or fair market value. Fair market value, though, would not include the value of any minerals. The miners also would have to spend at least $7,500 on mineral development work to show they were serious. Lands adjacent to existing patented claims could also be bought.
This is not a land grab and does not provide for selling off millions of acres of public land, said Brian Kennedy, spokesman for the House Resources Committee. What this is about is continued economic development for rural communities in the West that are dependent on natural resources industries.
Kennedy added that refuges, parks and designated wilderness areas would be off-limits, while Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein contends the bill could be particularly severe on national park land in California.
Kennedy cited a Bureau of Land Management estimate that a maximum of 360,000 acres nationwide would be subject to sale, based on current information about mining operations. Environmentalists retort that mining claims have already been staked on 5.7 million acres nationwide, thereby setting this land up for sale.
The Senates version of the budget reconciliation bill does not include the mining land provisions, and their long-term prospects are unclear. At the least, though, they have helped keep a spotlight on the 44-year-old Pombo, who in recent months has drawn both high praise and sharp criticism for his broader environmental agenda.
The bill could come up for a vote in the House as early as this week.
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