MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE — Standing at the foot of billion-year-old Stripe Mountain, acting park chief Larry Whalon gazed up at ancient slopes banded in limestone and copper.
"In 10 years, there could be a big house right here. Lots of houses," Whalon said.
The entire mountain in the desert preserve west of Las Vegas is covered by federal mining claims, and newly proposed legislation would allow claim holders to purchase this land outright.
Supporters say the mining law changes, part of a spending bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last month, are intended to revive dying rural mining towns. But the possible consequences have provoked fierce disagreement.
A House-Senate conference committee is expected in the near future to begin work to resolve the differences between the House bill and one passed by the Senate. The Senate bill does not contain the mining provisions, but it does include an equally contentious measure, rejected by the House, that would open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
Critics fear the mining law changes could open the door to any type of locally approved development on millions of acres of public land -- including national forests and national parks. Records show California's national parks have more mining claims than any others in the U.S.
Six Western governors, all Democrats, signed a letter Thursday opposing the changes, calling them "ill-conceived" with "sinister intent."
"Functionally, 6 million acres of public land could be on the selling block ... including lands within our wilderness and national parks system," wrote the governors of Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico, Arizona, Oregon and Washington. "With the potential for new ... claims, untold other millions of acres could be up for sale."
The governors said the sale of lands would yield a "paltry" $32 million annually, while sacrificing $2 billion worth of royalties.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office is assessing the mining claims legislation, but spokesman Darel Ng said Friday, "He has not yet taken a position."
Supported by the mining industry, the bill is being championed by Reps. Richard Pombo (R-Tracy), Resources Committee chair, and Jim Gibbons, a Nevada Republican and Resources Committee member who wrote the legislation.
The two congressmen maintain it is a long overdue reform of an 1872 mining law that will help ease the nation's deficit and bolster rural economies. They say fears of massive development are unfounded, particularly in national parks and other protected areas.
"This is not some land sale or giveaway," said Pombo spokesman Brian Kennedy. "This legislation allows there to be jobs and economic sustainability after the mine closes."
But others worry that language in the bill could negate regulatory oversight of mining on public lands, and lead to the sale of surface lands atop claims.
"We're trying to decipher this thing. It's amazing how some of it is written," said Death Valley National Park Supt. J.T. Reynolds.
According to the park's mining engineer, Mel Essington, "They could put in a bingo parlor, gambling casinos, a McDonald's....
"A portion of the park extends into Nevada," Essington added. "They could have a legal right to a brothel out there."
Several hundred miles north in Sierra County, where there are about 1,500 mining claims and only 3,500 residents, county planning chief Tim Beals said privatization of claims would create "horrendous conflicts" between the new landowners and fishermen, hunters, hikers and snowmobilers, as well as a rush to build along the rivers. "It would be chaos."
If approved by the Senate, the law would lift an 11-year-old moratorium on the patenting, or sale, of federal lands to claim holders. Purchase prices, now $2.50 to $5 an acre, would be raised to $1,000 an acre or fair market value, whichever is greater. Claim holders could also stake and buy adjoining lands.
Mining industry officials said the ability to patent, or buy, mining claims would help ensure a domestic supply of minerals and provide incentive to make new uses of property containing shuttered mines.
Luke Popovich, vice president of the National Mining Assn., said critics have grossly exaggerated the law's potential effects. "If you put in some common-sense screens ... you come up with a total acreage that is seriously possible for privatization of about 360,000" across the U.S, he said.
The bulk of active mining claims on federal land in California are in the Mojave Desert and the Sierra Nevada foothills. The lands are rich in mining history, attractive for development and used by millions of people for camping and other recreation.
The Mojave Preserve, established in 1994, is studded with 432 active claims, meaning they pay fees each year and have done exploratory work.
The existing federal Mining in the Parks Act has tough restrictions that make it difficult to actually mine, and that effectively ban other development.