A budget bill that the House of Representatives is expected to vote on this week would force the federal government to put "For Sale" signs on public recreation lands in California and the West, including national forest holdings throughout the Sierra Nevada and remote parts of the Mojave Desert.
Backers of the bill insist that the amount of land affected would be small, but former Interior Department officials and some experts on natural resource law say the legislation could result in the sale of millions of acres.
Slipped into a massive budget-cutting bill late last month by the House Resources Committee, headed by Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy), the provision has been eclipsed by higher-profile battles over two other controversial plans that would expand oil drilling offshore and allow it in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Those proposals have been dropped for now, but the land-sale provision remains.
The bill would lift an 11-year-old moratorium on the patenting -- or sale -- of federal lands to mining companies for a fraction of their mineral worth. While the patent fees would rise from $2.50 or $5 an acre to $1,000, the price would continue to exclude the mineral worth, which can amount to billions of dollars.
In a rewrite of an 1872 mining law that reverses long-standing federal policy that the government keep public lands, the proposal also orders the Interior Department to sell land adjacent to mining claims for "economic development."
Under the provision, legal experts say anyone would be able to stake a new claim on those neighboring parcels, do some survey work and, without having to prove a valuable mineral discovery, purchase the land for as little as $1,000 an acre.
Because the West -- especially the Sierra Nevada, California desert and Colorado Rockies -- is studded with millions of mining claims dating to the 1800s, former Interior officials say the measure would open the door to the widespread privatization of federal lands used by millions of people for hiking, hunting, and off-road driving.
"When I first saw it, it took my breath away. It's really quite stunning," said Mat Millenbach, who was deputy director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management during President Bush's first term. "This could have the impact of making public lands harder to get to and use. There will be huge issues of incompatible uses."
House GOP leaders have had trouble rounding up the votes for the budget bill, which includes a number of contested spending cuts. But a floor vote is anticipated this week. If approved, the legislation would then go to a conference committee, where legislators would iron out differences between the House and Senate budget bills.
The Senate version does not contain the mining provisions, and opposition is surfacing among Senate Democrats, including Dianne Feinstein of California and Max Baucus of Montana, who said in a release Tuesday that he would fight the land sales "every step of the way."
Although the proposed mining law changes exclude national parks, wildlife refuges and wilderness areas designated by Congress, dropping the patent moratorium would allow miners to move ahead on hundreds of old claims within park boundaries that had been largely halted by the moratorium. Most of those claims are in California, including 36 in Death Valley National Park and 432 in the Mojave National Preserve.
Park officials are worried that other parts of the proposal could overturn Mojave National Preserve protections that restrict patent claims to minerals and prohibit private acquisition of the land in which the minerals are found. "We are concerned that it's going to open up the Mojave," said David Shaver, chief of geological resources for the National Park Service.
The mining provisions were drafted by Republican Jim Gibbons of Nevada. He and Pombo have complained that the federal government owns too much land in the West, and Pombo is spearheading efforts to rescind habitat protections for imperiled wildlife on 150 million acres.
Gibbons was unavailable for comment. In a statement released by his office, he said the mining proposal has been "misconstrued and misinterpreted. The claim that these provisions will result in a giveaway of our public lands is simply false.... It is illegal to file a mining claim without the intent to mine. It is not realistic or honest to claim that mining companies will suddenly turn into real estate speculators."
When the provision was adopted by the resources committee, he said the "purchase of lands is absolutely vital to the health of Nevada's rural communities because it expands the tax base of the local government."