A Times Editorial
A congressman who wants to drill in the gulf and weaken the Endangered Species Act offers another bill that puts treasured land at risk of development.
Published November 22, 2005
It could be the biggest land scam ever and the perpetrator is a member of Congress. A bill by Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., would allow anyone to claim ownership of public land for as little as $1,000 an acre under the guise of mining it. Instead of digging for gold, however, the owner could develop the land.
Millions of acres are at risk, often near the nation's most treasured natural areas. Not only would taxpayers lose the use of their land, they would also subsidize the purchase.
The House has already approved the measure - which alters an antiquated mining law - even though some representatives probably didn't know what they were voting on because it was hidden in a budget bill. For Pombo, this completes his land-grab trifecta. He is also pushing to open Florida's Gulf Coast to offshore drilling and to allow private land protected under the Endangered Species Act to be developed with little federal interference.
While the mining law has been used to rip off taxpayers for more than a century, Pombo's version would make it even worse.
Since 1872, mining interests could claim ownership of public land for the purpose of extracting minerals at little cost. It led to abuses such as the mining company that extracted $10-billion worth of gold from a stretch of Nevada desert that cost a mere $10,000. Embarrassed by that giveaway, Congress put a moratorium on the practice in 1994. Pombo's bill would not only end the moratorium, but make it easier to claim land with no intention to mine.
Under the bill's language, anyone could acquire public land for as little as $1,000 per acre and use it for "sustainable economic development." Opponents of the bill say that could be defined as condominiums, ski resorts or casinos.
Pombo says his motive is to help reduce the deficit with the proceeds, but that is a ruse. If Congress wanted to raise tax dollars on mining operations, they would impose a royalty, as they do on oil and coal production. In fact, a modest 8 percent mining royalty would raise twice as much as this garage sale of public land.
Several million acres, mostly in the West, already have mining claims, and nearly half of that is in or near national parks and forests, according to the Environmental Working Group. Millions of acres more could also be at risk. "To our knowledge, it represents the largest land giveaway in modern American history," said Dusty Horwitt, an analyst with the group.
Bill supporters say those seeking to exploit public land by claiming a bogus mining interest would be stopped by federal regulators. That's hardly reassuring. In the Bush administration, the exploiters are now the regulators.
With no companion legislation in the Senate, a final compromise would be worked out in a conference committee that meets in private. Nearly everyone agrees that as a stand-alone bill, the land giveaway would fail. Senate negotiators shouldn't let Pombo do his dirty work under the cover of darkness.
[Last modified November 22, 2005, 02:15:27]
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