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Plan to sell lands via mining law gets makeover

Hoping to appease Western senators, House Republicans have revised controversial legislation that would allow the sale of some public lands for mining,  but environmentalists remain skeptical.
/ Source: The Associated Press

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

Nevada 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 is still opposed to the mining provision.

“If they want to have a bill they should have a standalone bill, so there can be some debate,” said Republican Sen. Craig Thomas of 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.