Republicans in Congress late Tuesday stripped proposed mining law revisions from a budget bill that critics said could have led to the sell-off of millions of acres of federal land, including portions of national parks and forests, such as Death Valley National Park and Mojave National Preserve.
The package faced mounting bipartisan opposition from Western senators, whose support was crucial, after scores of groups, including a coalition of hunting and fishing interests, complained. A Senate spokesman said opposition to the mining law revisions could have jeopardized passage of the budget bill.
In an interview with The Times, the author of the proposals, Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.), denied that criticism from park officials, hunting and fishing groups, and others had led to the decision. He said the furor was the result of "intentionally false and misleading information put out by anti-mining groups ... that had no impact on the fact that we are here today."
Gibbons vowed to reintroduce what he called comprehensive mining reform legislation in the new year.
"Of course I'm disappointed," Gibbons said. "The process over on the Senate side was a hurdle we could not overcome. But I am committed to bringing the mining law of this country into the 21st century."
The legislation, which came out of the House Resources Committee, chaired by Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy), would have lifted a moratorium on the sale, or patenting, of federally owned lands and allowed private development.
Gibbons said such legislation was needed to help poor, rural communities survive after mining operations closed down and to maintain a domestic mining industry.
Critics, who had been caught off-guard when the mining provisions were tucked into the House's massive budget bill last month, welcomed the news that they had been stripped as part of the reconciliation process between the House and the Senate.
"Excellent. That's a big relief," said Larry Whalon, acting superintendent for Mojave National Preserve, which is studded with 432 active mining claims that he feared could have been sold to private developers after being mined.
"We talked about condominiums," he said. "There was also the possibility of landfills."
Whalon and others said they would be better prepared to review any new proposals as they came up. "The cat's out of the bag now," he said.
Death Valley park Supt. J.T. Reynolds concurred: "It's a welcome stay of execution."
Sid Smith, a spokesman for Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), said that under budget reconciliation rules, the provisions could have required a 60-vote majority, which would have been difficult to win, and might have torpedoed the entire budget package, including language opening Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, which the Senate has approved.
"To be honest, [Craig] was concerned that the mining reform package might ... make it difficult for the budget bill to pass," Smith said. "There was concern that there were a few environmentally related issues like ANWR in the budget bill, and if we had a few too many, those sorts of things might galvanize some opposition to the budget bill as a whole."
Craig also was concerned that access for sportsmen might be limited by private land sales allowed under Gibbons' mining law revisions, Smith said. He added that Craig would probably be opposed to any land sale in national parks, but was interested in working on a strong mining reform act next year.
In recent weeks, key GOP senators from Colorado, Wyoming and Montana expressed misgivings about the land sales, agreeing with Senate Democrats Dianne Feinstein of California and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico.
Republican Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana was quoted in his home-state press as saying the bill was "crazy" and "not going anywhere."
On Tuesday, a coalition of more than two dozen hunting and fishing groups claiming to represent 55 million hunters and fishermen sent a letter to Rep. Jim Nussle, an Iowa Republican who chairs the House Budget Committee, and Rep. John M. Spratt Jr., a South Carolina Democrat and the committee's ranking minority member, expressing "serious concerns."
"America's hunters and anglers depend upon public lands and waters
Conservation groups also were pleased. Velma Smith, Mining Campaign Director for the National Environmental Trust, said: "America's treasured public lands got an early holiday present today when Congressman Gibbons announced that he would retract his land giveaway plan from the House's budget bill."