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Public Domain, Private Dominion : A HISTORY OF PUBLIC MINERAL POLICY IN AMERICA by Carl J. Meyer and George A. Riley with the the staff of the Center for Study of Responsive Law (Sierra Club: $25; 352 pp.)

December 08, 1985|David M. Graber | Graber is an ecologist who frequently reviews natural resource topics for The Book Review. and

The sagebrush rebellion has faded under the Reagan Administration. Doubtless a partial explanation for this is that Western resource-extraction interests have gotten what they want without having to go through the bother of seeking title to the public lands.

The ambitious reforms attempted by President Carter and his Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus foundered on the rocks of private interests and Carter's own waning influence and are now quite dormant. It is inevitable, however, that the basis for allocating publicly owned timber, grazing forage, water, mineral ore, coal and oil as it has been conducted for more than a century must change. The present system is environmentally destructive, economically foolhardy, anti-democratic and irrational.

Making sense of public land policy is simply hopeless without an understanding of its history. Carl Meyer, George Riley, and the staff of the Center for Study of Responsive Law who cooperatively produced this book have tackled public mineral policy head-on, with an unusual consequence: In order to make their polemic and to present an alternative policy of "public resources for public purposes," the authors have produced a book that is nine-tenths scholarly history.

For most people outside the resource extraction industries and their regulating agencies, the business has the look of hoary Wild-West tradition and carnival madness. Miners still stake claims on public land, take possession of that land for virtually nothing, remove valuable minerals, and leave behind ugly scars . . . with no reimbursement to the public treasury. Mining continues in wilderness, national monuments and other public lands with great scenic value when most mineral claims have lain unworked for decades. Leases for offshore oil are granted not to the highest bidder, but to the winner of a lottery, who in turn sells his newly won lease to a large oil company for a small fortune.

The principal device for regulating hard-rock mining on public lands is the 1872 Mining Law. Posed, even at its inception, as "a homestead act for poor prospectors," Mayer and Riley substantiate their claim that it was designed to clear the decks for the large mining corporations that were beginning to dominate the industry after the Civil War. The law "enshrined the principle that public mineral resources were to be controlled by and for the benefit of the mining industry. This made American law anomalous among the legal systems of the world: Spanish, British, Mexican, and Australian law reserved some part of mineral production for public use." From the labyrinthine deals between miners, banks and lawmakers of that era, unearthed by the authors from a variety of sources, this massive transfer of public wealth to private hands--quite reminiscent of the deal by which the railroads were granted almost 10% of the nation's surface area--is by no means the consequence solely of connivance, nor capitalist-privatist ideology, nor the conviction that this arrangement was the most pragmatic for assuring cheap and plentiful raw materials to America's burgeoning industrial maw. All three elements were at play back then, and they remain so today.

Before 1920, petroleum reserves on public lands were disposed of in much the same way as hard-rock minerals. The Mineral Lands Leasing Act of that year established a procedure of leasing and royalties--a profound deviation from the previous practice of giving away public resources. Mayer and Riley discount the notion that the law was based upon the desire to extend "democratic" control over public lands. Instead, they offer plausible evidence that the act was intended to introduce stability in oil production and pricing to replace the ruinous strikes and oil gluts of the wildcatters' era, thus providing a profitable environment for the major petroleum corporations. Today, leases are granted through a lottery fraught with abuses, while competitive leases might yield an additional $1.3 billion over the next four years, according to Congressional Budget Office figures. More modern policies written for the Outer Continental Shelf (offshore) and oil shale lands have likewise resulted in massive giveaways, the most recent and public having been James Watt's offshore leasing at a time when oil prices were deeply depressed.

"Public Domain, Private Dominion" is an imposing piece of research. Sometimes historical detail tends to overwhelm the policy kernel the authors are analyzing. In the end, however, reasoned discourse and a command of facts do come together, and the conclusions are inescapable: Minerals policy must be rewritten, and doing so requires reconsideration of the relationship between the public and its landholdings. We no longer require land giveaways to be assured of supplies of raw materials. Minerals (and lumber, and range livestock) are commodities in a world economy. The present Administration, in particular, must confront the actuality that disposal of public resources at less than their full market value is a kind of industrial socialism, while a policy that seeks to maximize long-term public benefit could do a great deal to relieve the national debt and conserve natural resources for future generations.

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