House GOP hopes to quiet Senate skeptics with changed mining plan | AspenTimes.com

House GOP hopes to quiet Senate skeptics with changed mining plan

Mary Claire Jalonick
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON ” House Republicans have revised controversial legislation that would allow the sale of some public lands for mining, hoping to appease Western senators who have objected to it.

The proposed change to mining law, tucked into a larger budget bill, would overturn an 11-year old congressional ban that prevents mineral companies from “patenting,” or buying, public land at cheap prices if the land contains mineral deposits.

At least three Republican senators, several Democratic Western governors, hunters, anglers, ski area representatives and legal professors have criticized the original language.

Pitkin County, the city of Aspen and local environmental groups were among the critics. They alleged that approval of the bill, as written, could lead to widespread development of cabins and roads in the backcountry, despite tough county zoning.

An analysis by the Environmental Working Group and The Aspen Times determined that about 250,500 acres of public land in Pitkin County alone could fall into private hands.

Several Western senators have indicated they may not support the budget bill, designed to cut federal spending, if the provision is not removed.

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Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., author of the mining legislation, said Monday he would remove language from the bill that would have allowed the direct sale of some lands that no longer contained minerals. Critics had warned that provision would have allowed a “fire sale” of tens of millions of acres of public lands now used for recreation.

Gibbons, a mining lawyer before he came to Congress, said those claims were exaggerated and development would have helped boost the economy in mining towns.

Environmental groups said Monday that Gibbons’ fix would still leave many public lands vulnerable to development.

At least one Republican senator said he still opposes the mining provision.

“If they want to have a bill they should have a stand-alone bill, so there can be some debate,” said Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyoming.

A spokesman for Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, a Republican opposed to the direct sale language, said the senator feels Gibbons’ change is a “positive development” but could still be a hard sell in the Senate.

House and Senate negotiators are hoping to come to a final compromise on the budget bill before the end of the year.