updated 12/9/2005 1:02:31 PM ET 2005-12-09T18:02:31

Kent Taylor makes a living using Internet auctioneer eBay Inc. to ask tens of thousands of dollars for Western lands the government sold to miners a century ago for less than $10 an acre.

Taylor’s listings in the imposing San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado include, for example, an acre at nearly 12,000 feet along a four-wheel-drive dirt road, for which he’s asking $19,000, and 20 acres at 11,500 feet, where aspen and firs provide companionship, for $109,000. The lands came to him, he says, by way of “a lot of Joe Blow people who just have patented mining claims passed on through the generations.”

There are no federal prohibitions to using these lands near Lake City, Colo., for something other than mining, the reason the government allowed them to be “patented” — a term for sold — to companies and people. A buyer could put up a mountain cabin, possibly even start a small business there.

“If I paid $10,000 for a parcel, then I could flip that for $50,000 to $100,000,” Taylor said proudly. “A bunch of that stuff that I have is creme de la creme.”

But the possibility that Congress may soon make anywhere from 20 million to 350 million acres more of public land available by allowing for new mining claims after a 10-year moratorium on them has put Taylor in a strange alliance with environmentalists.

“That would be the total most-retarded thing they could do,” said Taylor, who explains that all of the listings he posts on eBay are lands obtained on mining claims sold by the government in the late 1800s and early 1900s. “I just could see a floodgate of scams opening. Somebody’s going to be lining their pockets big time.”

Advocacy organizations like Environmental Working Group called the House-passed plan an insult. The group’s president, Ken Cook, said it “has offended just about everyone who uses these lands for any purpose.” Eight Western Democratic senators told Senate Republican leaders it would be a “raid on the public’s resources under the guise of fiscal responsibility.”

Three Republican senators, six Democratic Western governors, hunters, anglers, ski area representatives and legal professors also have criticized it.

The House mining provision that was added to the budget bill passed the week before Thanksgiving. Because it is not in the Senate version of the budget bill, negotiators for the two chambers will have to reach a compromise later this month.

The architects of ending the moratorium are House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif., and Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., who chairs the committee’s energy and mineral resources subcommittee. Gibbons says his rewrite of the nation’s antiquated mining laws isn’t as terrible as critics make it sound.

“The claim that this will result in a public land grab is false,” Gibbons said. “We feel that these provisions are right for America. We’re modernizing the 1872 mining law so we give a fair return to the taxpayers and allow for a viable and sustainable mining industry.”

Congress has barred mineral companies and individuals from making new applications to patent, or buy, public land including some in national forests and parks. The Interior Department, however, has continued processing 405 applications that were pending when the moratorium took hold and approved 207 of them during the Clinton and Bush administrations.

While companies have been able to buy lands rich in gold and silver for $2.50 to $5 an acre in the past, the House measure would raise that fee to $1,000 an acre or fair market value, whichever is more.

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the mining claims, says the plan could affect up to 20 million acres. Environmentalists say it could allow the government to sell 350 million acres.

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