updated 11/11/2005 8:25:37 AM ET 2005-11-11T13:25:37

As many as 20 million acres of public land could be sold under a proposed change in mining law that is tucked into a budget bill in the House.

At issue is the possible overturning of a congressional ban that has prevented mineral companies and individuals from “patenting,” or buying, public land, including some in national forests and parks, at cheap prices if the land contains mineral deposits.

“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.

A vote on the overall bill was put off until next week.

The Interior Department over the past decade has approved slightly more than half of the 405 patent applications it received before 1994, and is processing the final 50.

Rationale for lifting ban
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 application. They propose raising the price to $1,000 per acre or “fair market value,” whichever is more. That does not take into account the value of the minerals the lands might contain.

Rep. Jim Gibbons, chairman of the House Resources energy and mineral resources subcommittee, said Thursday the provision would help the mining industry and, in turn, boost local economies. But he sought to deflect criticism of a land-grab in the making.

“It is not realistic or honest to claim that mining companies will suddenly turn into real estate speculators ... and apply for a patent only to sell the land for a hotel or other business development,” said Gibbons, R-Nev.

Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, the senior Democrat on the committee, said the mining provision “is one of the many ways the Republican leadership acts on behalf of special interests instead of in the best interest of the taxpayer.”

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. Department officials say companies typically spend about $10,000 to $15,000 per acre trying to document that it is economically viable to mine there.

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.

‘Patents’ on millions of acres?
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. There are 900 preexisting mining claims on national parks alone, mostly in California and Alaska.

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 ranges as high as 15 million to 20 million acres.

That additional acreage includes remote desert and mountain basins where no claims have been staked and there has not been much mining, but a profitable mineral deposit could exist.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., wrote Pombo and urged him to withdraw the measure. She said it would allow people to “carve out numerous private enclaves within our public lands” and that the land sales “could fragment the desert parks” in California.

“Your bill also appears to require the secretary of the interior to sell ’mineral deposits’ or lands containing ’depleted’ mineral deposits to anyone desiring them,” she wrote.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates the changes in law could raise several hundred million dollars, including $100 million that could be spent over the next 10 years for mining cleanups and schools that offer training in petroleum, mining or mineral engineering.

The new language lowers the threshold for obtaining a permit and generally mirrors what the National Mining Association advocated. Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the trade group, said those changes would help boost rural Western economies by drawing investment “in areas where mining companies are clearly the high-wage employers.”

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