Local governments sound off on federal mining bill
November 16, 2005
A proposed change in mining law that could allow the sale of millions of acres of public land has caught the attention of local elected officials, who are registering their objections in letters to Colorado’s congressional delegation.The mining provision has been gaining notice in recent weeks, following a story in High Country News and in part because of the efforts of environmental groups. A Denver Post editorial last week blasted the legislation. The measure is tucked into a House budget reconciliation bill; a vote on the overall bill was put off last week but could come at any time.Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia declared the provision is “the worst kind of sham reform” of the Mining Law of 1872. He is the senior Democrat on the House Energy and Resources Subcommittee.”To say that enactment of these amendments to the Mining Law would be devastating to Pitkin County and the state of Colorado is an understatement,” Pitkin County said in its letter to Colorado’s congressional contingent. County commissioners unanimously approved a draft of the letter this week. The Aspen City Council also unanimously endorsed a letter objecting to the measure.”I think it is really sort of a dirty trick, putting it in the federal budget bill,” Councilwoman Rachel Richards said.At issue is a congressional ban that has prevented mining companies and individuals from patenting – or buying – land at cheap prices if it contains mineral deposits, including national forest land. Unpatented mining claims abound in Pitkin County in the lands surrounding Aspen.House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif., and other committee members want to lift the ban, which prevents anyone from applying for a new patent. They propose raising the price to $1,000 per acre (from $2.50 to $5) or “fair market value,” whichever is more. That does not take into account the value of the minerals the lands might contain.Pitkin County has purchased 296 acres of patented mining claims from private owners to prevent development since 1993. Another 25 acres have been donated outright as open space. The cost has averaged $19,000 per acre and, in the last three years, has risen to more than $30,000 per acre, the county notes in its letter.”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 letter reads.Opponents of the legislation also contend mining companies will apply for patents, only to sell the land for real estate development.Under existing law, companies have had to convince the Interior Department that the land has a valuable mineral deposit and it can be mined at a profit. Once a patent is granted, the law does not let the government challenge a company if it drops its plan to mine at a site and resells the property as real estate.Up to 6 million acres of public lands – those where some 300,000 active mining claims are staked now – could be “patented” under the mining law provision. That includes Western deserts and high prairies, national forests and national parks. But officials with the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the mining claims, estimate the amount of public lands that the law could potentially allow to be sold off is as high as 15 million to 20 million acres, according to an Associated Press report.Although some backcountry lands in Pitkin County have been zoned rural and remote, restricting development to 1,000-square-foot cabins that can’t be served by plowed roads and utilities, much of the property that could be affected by the legislation, both in and out of the county, is not zoned, according to Mick Ireland, county commissioner.”A lot of places have never done much with zoning because they didn’t think Forest Service land would be developed,” he said. “If this provision became law, it could literally lead to the privatization of millions of acres of public land, including national park and national forest land,” said Dave Alberswerth, public lands director for The Wilderness Society, according to the AP.Said Rahall in a speech to the House earlier this month: “If enacted, this proposal would result in a blazing fire sale of federal lands to domestic and international corporate interests. This is the worst kind of sham reform of the Mining Law ever to be promoted in my tenure in Congress. It is actually a step backward from the horrendously outdated 133-year-old statute now in force.”The Senate’s budget reconciliation bill does not contain the Mining Law amendments. Local officials are urging their congressional representatives to see that the proposed changes to the law are dropped as Congress works out the differences between the two bills.The Associated Press contributed to this report.