Govs. Fear Sale of Public Lands for Mining

The Associated Press
Saturday, December 3, 2005; 11:36 PM

WASHINGTON -- Six Western governors and a growing number of senators say they fear a plan in a budget bill allowing the sale of millions of acres of public lands could do permanent harm to their states.

"It's got implications for hunters, sportsmen, people who use lands for grazing and basically anybody who uses public lands," said Angela de Rocha, a spokeswoman for Wayne Allard of Colorado, one of a handful of Western GOP senators who say they are concerned about the proposal.

House lawmakers added the provision, which ends an 11-year congressional ban on new applications to buy public land for mining, to their budget bill on the Friday before Thanksgiving.

Supporters say it would help struggling communities recover after mines close. But opponents argue it amounts to a fire sale on federal lands, including wilderness study areas and national parks. The Interior Department says the plan could affect up to 20 million acres, while environmentalists say it could allow the government to sell 350 million acres.

Since the provision is not in the Senate's budget measure, lawmakers will hammer out a compromise later this month.

Meanwhile, opposition is mounting from several Western Democratic senators and governors, a group representing Colorado counties, hunters and anglers, outdoor enthusiasts, environmentalists and the Aspen Skiing Co.

All are pressuring Western Republican senators to kill the proposal.

In a letter Friday to the Senate Budget Committee, the Democratic governors of Wyoming, Montana, Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington said the bill is based on "absurd economics" and threatens people's access to parks and other public lands.

A few GOP senators, including Allard, have already indicated they have questions. Wyoming's Sen. Craig Thomas earlier this week called the bill a "Band-Aid fix to the Mining Act" that could become a "chronic injury to land use."

The bill changes an 1872 law that allows private companies to "patent" _ or purchase _ public land at up to $5 an acre to mine minerals such as gold and silver.

Congress has opposed new patents since 1994. House lawmakers now propose to lift the ban and raise the fee to $1,000 an acre, or "fair market value," whichever is more.

Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif., said the bill is about "sustainable economic development for rural communities in need" and that Pombo would be open to negotiating some changes.

© 2005 The Associated Press