Land Sale Bill Ignites Passions in American West
MISSOULA, Montana A Republican congressman under fire for crafting a bill to sell public land to mining interests defended his proposal Tuesday, saying it would ensure the viability of the mining industry and help develop the economies of rural communities.
"This is not a public land giveaway; that is undeniably a false statement by opponents," Rep. Jim Gibbons of Nevada said of provisions he and Rep. Richard Pombo, a Republican of California, shepherded into a budget bill that the House passed last month.
The proposal has ignited a firestorm of protest in western states whose economies are fueled by the multibillion-dollar tourism and recreation industries that depend on public lands.
"A lot of fiction is being promulgated and misconstrued by those who are anti-mining," Gibbons said.
Opponents argue that some of the West's prime recreation grounds could be sold to companies with mining claims or anyone who wants to establish them, even if there is no proof of mineral wealth.
House and Senate negotiators are scheduled to begin hammering out a compromise budget when Congress reconvenes next week. The land sale measure lifts an 11-year ban on the sale of public lands to mining companies and boosts to at least $1,000 the cost per acre from $2.50.
Gibbons said the aim in retooling the nation's 1872 mining law, originally crafted to promote mineral extraction and settlement in the West, is to protect domestic mining so that the United States does not have to depend on foreign sources.
The bill allows lands surrounding claims to be sold for undefined "sustainable economic development" to benefit rural communities, and some translate that to mean expensive housing enclaves or exclusive ski resorts.
Opposition has united odd bedfellows, including ranchers, environmentalists, off-road vehicle advocates and other outdoor enthusiasts, many of whom are calling the measure a land grab.
The Democratic governors of six western states have written to the Senate's budget panel to register their dismay, and conservation groups in Montana launched a series of television commercials Monday.
Outrage over the bill has risen to fever pitch in Montana, where U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, a Democrat, is leading the call to squelch the mining measure. "It's an abominable idea," he said in an interview Tuesday. "Our public lands are for the public."
Backers of the measure say it would authorize at most 360,000 acres for sale, funneling roughly $158 million into depleted federal coffers. Opponents say wording in the bill opens for sale millions of acres across the West, including some of the West's most prized landscapes.
A case in point in western Montana is Rock Creek, a blue-ribbon trout stream that draws tens of thousands each year to recreate in an area made famous for its abundance of cutthroat, elk, bighorn sheep and mountain goats.
The recreation site also is home to more than 3,700 mining claims, all of which could be sold, if the measure becomes law.
Walter Lore, who lives near Rock Creek and has been fishing and hunting there for years, said closing access to any part of the area would make Montanans "big-time upset. We might have a civil war."