Congress should bury mining law revision
November 18, 2005
Colorado’s congressional delegation needs to do everything it can to keep proposed changes to the Mining Law of 1872 from becoming the law of the land.
Under the guise of “reform,” Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have crafted legislation that would strip protections for the environment and the public purse from the 133-year-old law.
Worse still, the proposed changes may open millions of acres of national forests and other public lands to residential development.
House Republicans want to lift an 11-year ban that has prevented mining companies and individuals from patenting ” or buying ” land at cheap prices if it contains mineral deposits. Unpatented mining claims ” those that have been applied for but not granted ” abound in Pitkin County in the lands surrounding Aspen, and throughout the western United States. Up to 6 million acres of public lands could be “patented” under the mining law provision.
House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif., and some of his fellow Republicans want to lift the ban, which prevents anyone from applying for a new patent application. They propose raising the price to $1,000 per acre (from $2.50 to $5) or “fair market value,” whichever is more.
But despite appearances, the measure would do little to benefit the U.S. Treasury. Under current federal policy, oil and coal companies must pay royalties on profits derived from extracting irreplaceable resources from public lands. No such requirement exists in the proposed legislation.
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Until the ban on new patents was imposed 11 years ago, the federal government required that mining companies prove mineral wealth existed and that it could be extracted profitably before granting a patent. The proposed legislation would lift that basic requirement.
Even more worrisome is the fact that this legislation, currently in the form of an amendment to a budget bill, does not ensure that patents are actually mined. There’s nothing to stop companies that obtain property from putting the land on the market for residential development or other uses.
The implications of this legislation are profound. How are local governments going to handle land-use applications for property miles away from the nearest road or utility line? How many extra deputies will need to be hired to ensure police protection for a development 40 miles from anywhere?
Even Pitkin County, which has enacted land-use rules to limit the scale and impact of backcountry development, fears the potential impact of this particular legislation.
“Even if the proposed amendment authorizes a fair market value sale, developers could outspend our ability protect the thousands of acres in the county that might qualify for sale under this legislation,” the Pitkin County commissioners wrote in a letter to Colorado’s congressional delegation.
While it is obvious that the 1872 Mining Law needs to be amended, and the ban on mining patents lifted, this legislation is not the way to do it. Congress should put off a decision until next year, when it can craft and debate a law that addresses the interests of mining companies, mountain communities, ski resorts, hunters and all of the other forest users.
But first Colorado’s congressional delegation ” Democrats and Republicans, alike ” must stop this current legislation in its tracks.