PHOENIX — Other people saw only a scarred and trash-strewn hillside. Miner Frank Melluzzo recognized opportunity.
Under an antiquated century-old federal mining law, he staked a claim on 60 acres of federally owned land overlooking Phoenix and eventually was allowed to buy it from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for $2.50 an acre.
He was looking for building stone. Instead, he struck real estate gold.
In 1980, six years after acquiring the land, Melluzzo sold an interest in it to the developer of a planned condominium-golf course project called the Pointe Tapatio Cliffs. A $150 investment earned him $400,000 and an 11% share in the resulting $360-million resort.
"I'm set for life," Melluzzo said, quickly adding that a city zoning plan forced him to sell the proper-ty. "The city grew up around me," he observed, "and the time came when you couldn't mine in the city of Phoenix."
In a time of huge federal budget deficits, however, such cut-rate giveaways are focusing attention on the outdated and ineffective laws that govern public lands--and the primary federal agency assigned to administer them, the Bureau of Land Management.
Exposing the Land
Interviews with dozens of conservationists, bureau employees and government auditors lead to a common conclusion: budget cuts, politicization and outdated laws have hobbled the BLM and exposed many millions of acres of public property to private profiteering, neglect and environmental degradation.
Because of the massive size of BLM's assignment--in one way or another, it manages about a quarter of the entire United States--environmentalists are characterizing the bureau and its problems as a pre-eminent conservation issue of the 1990s and a crucial test of President Bush's commitment to the environment.
At stake is some of the most valuable and vulnerable land in the country--572 million acres in all, most of it in the West. Included are 272 million acres of desert, rangeland, forest and tundra, as well as the mineral rights to another 300 million acres, mostly under national forests administered by the U.S. Forest Service.
Under federal law, the BLM is obligated not simply to preserve the public lands it administers, but to make them productive as well. BLM must set aside some lands for mining as well as wilderness, for grazing in addition to wildlife and for backpackers and off-road vehicle riders alike. The argument comes over whether the agency has tilted too far toward production and away from conservation. Its critics argue that it has.
"BLM has often placed the needs of commercial interests, such as livestock permittees and mine operators, ahead of other users (and) the long-term health of (the public's) resources," said James Duffus III of the General Accounting Office, a congressional watchdog agency.
"As a result," he continued, "some permittees have come to view the use of these (public) lands as a property right for private benefit rather than a conditional privilege conferred by the public at large."
BLM officials acknowledge that some ranchers feel proprietary toward public lands but deny that the bureau acquiesces to them. Instead, officials say the agency accommodates ranchers as legitimate users of public land and regulates them as much as possible with the money allocated by Congress.
Criticism is not new to the agency. Those who contend it is too deferential to cattlemen and prospectors have long mocked BLM as the "Bureau of Livestock and Mining," while ranchers often grumble about the arrogant "Bureau of Land Mismanagement."
Congress tried to improve the BLM in 1976 by passing a comprehensive set of guidelines called the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, but critics both in and out of the bureau contend that the law has been thwarted by ideologically conservative appointees of the Reagan and Bush administrations in senior management positions.
Even the harshest BLM critics respect the agency's staff--"Some of their field managers are the best you can find, anywhere," said Bern Shanks of the Center for California Studies at Sacramento State University--but the rules, regulations and orders under which they work have led to a litany of abuses:
- Multinational mining outfits strip-mine billions of dollars worth of gold, silver and other valuable "hard rock" minerals from lands owned by taxpayers, but pay no royalties nor any other compensation to the Treasury.
- A small fraction of the country's cattle graze public rangeland, sometimes until it is turned into desert or otherwise ruined for wildlife, while ranchers pay fees that are as much as 70% or 80% below what adjacent private landowners charge.
- Other land is sold well below market rates--as low as $2.50 or $5 an acre--or swapped for property of significantly lower cash value because the bureau is bound by antiquated mining laws and lacks adequate staff to appraise all of the land it manages.