Pombo Would Sell Federally Protected Lands to Mining Companies

WASHINGTON, DC, October 26, 2005 (ENS) - The House Resources Committee is set to vote today on a budget measure that would give mining corporations control over much of America’s federal public land.

The budget reconciliation proposal put forward by Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, a California Republican, would allow foreign and U.S. mining corporations to buy millions of acres of public lands in the West, including land in national parks, wilderness and other protected areas.

In addition, the proposal would undercut budget deficit reduction by prohibiting the federal government from imposing royalties on minerals and metals removed from public lands.

Under the 1872 Mining Law, mining companies can buy public land for $2.50 or $5 an acre. This land sale, known as a patent, gives companies absolute title to the property.

In August 1995, President Bill Clinton called for a moratorium on further mining patents on about 19,000 federally owned acres in the area of Yellowstone National Park. Since then, there has been a moratorium on this practice, passed in the Interior Appropriations bill each year.


Congressman Richard Pombo was sworn in to his seventh term in the House of Representatives in January 2005. He represents California’s 11th Congressional District, including San Joaquin, Alameda, Contra Costa and Santa Clara Counties. (Photo courtesy Office of the Congressman)
Under Pombo's proposal, mining companies would once again be able to buy public land, this time for $1,000 an acre - still far below the true value of the mineral rich land.

Once a patent is granted, officials say, the Mining Law does not permit them to challenge a company if it decides not to mine a site that could be resold as real estate.

The committee's ranking Democrat, Congressman Nick Rahall who represents the mining state of West Virginia, proposed a permanent end to such patents.

But if the patent moratorium is repealed, treasured places throughout the West could be permanently removed from America's system of public lands, said Lauren Pagel, legislative coordinator at Earthworks, a Washington, DC based nonprofit organization that aims to protect communities and the environment from the destructive impacts of mineral development, in the United States and worldwide.

The fate of rivers and streams running through these lands, providing water for agriculture and municipalities, will be left largely to mining companies to determine, warned Earthworks, as will the health of wildlife and game habitat.

Americans who hunt, fish, hike, and recreate in these areas will be permanently denied the access they now have, Pagel said.


ASARCO, a copper mining company, has asked that over 400 acres be removed from the Ironwood National Monument near Tucson, Arizona. The Sierra Club says this land is a prime birthing area for the last viable population of desert bighorn sheep in Pima County. (Photo courtesy Sierra Club)
The Pombo proposal would remove the current minimal requirement that corporations must show that they have found valuable mineral deposits on public land before they can buy it, so it would open up far more land for purchase than allowed even by the 1872 Mining Law.

“This is the great un-American land grab of 2005,” said Allen Rosenfeld, a senior advisor for the Westerners for Responsible Mining campaign.

“Pombo’s measure could encourage the largest liquidation of America’s public lands since the Homestead Act of 1862," said Rosenfeld. "Instead of trail head markers and open access to lakes and streams, outdoor enthusiasts will be confronted by an unwanted epidemic of ‘no trespassing’ signs.”

The proposal would be a windfall for foreign and domestic mining interests that already have staked mining claims covering more than 5.5 million acres of federal land.

The National Mining Association (NMA), an industry group, says, "Many of this nation's minerals are found on federal lands that comprise 38 percent of the combined land area of the 11 western states where most minerals and metals mining occurs. National policy affecting the availability and use of federal lands has significant implications for whether or not these important resources are developed."

The mining industry argues that even though the United States has reserves of 78 important mined minerals, the country "has become increasingly reliant on foreign sources of minerals for products that are strategically important to our national and economic security."

The NMA cites 2004 figures compiled by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) that show the United States is now 100 percent import dependent on 17 major minerals.

Since 1993, U.S. reliance on imported sources of minerals has increased seven-fold, the USGS says. Over the same period, the U.S. share of worldwide minerals exploration dollars has declined in part because public policies have made exploration and development in the United States too inefficient and unpredictable to attract sufficient investments, the NMA said.

"We need a National Minerals Policy that ensures a fair, predictable and efficient legal and regulatory climate and fosters production of minerals that are the foundation of our economy," said the mining association.

Last year, more than 45,560 new mining claims were recorded by the U.S. Department of the Interior covering up to 910,000 acres of federal public lands in the West - a fourfold increase since 2001. This surge in claim staking, which is being fueled by recent high prices for gold and other metals, is expected to continue.

“This is highway robbery,” said Cathy Carlson, policy advisor to Earthworks. “And the victims are the nation’s taxpayers and millions of Americans who hunt, fish, hike and make a livelihood from federal lands in the West.”

"If the congressman were truly interested in raising money from the mining industry to reduce the federal deficit,” said Carlson, “he would better serve the public’s interest by imposing a first-ever royalty on the value of minerals and metals taken from public land.”


Two patented mining claims on nine acres adjoining U.S. Forest Service land near Creede, Colorado are on the market for $70,000. (Photo courtesy Broken Arrow Ranch & Land)
An eight percent royalty on the value of extracted minerals, similar to what other extractive industries pay, would yield more than twice as much federal revenue, about $350 million in five years, as the $155 million Pombo estimates his proposal would raise.

Mining is the only extractive industry operating on public lands that does not pay any federal royalty, but the Pombo proposal would explicitly prohibit royalties from being derived from metals and minerals extracted from mines on federal land. If a royalty were imposed by future legislation, patented land would be excluded since it would be privately owned.

Pagel called the Pombo proposal "nothing more than a $1,000 per acre Trojan horse designed to dupe Congress into giving away public access to America's special places."

A group of citizens of the 11th Congressional District of California who are "appalled" to have Pombo as their Congressional Representative ahve set up website called Vote Pombo Out.org. They say Pombo "has proven himself a right-wing extremist with a radical conservative social agenda. His record and views on the environment are particularly disturbing."

They say Pombo is working to, "sell off our public lands to mining companies, overturn the Endangered Species Act, restart commercial whaling, see intensive logging of our national forests, gut the Clear Air and Clean Water acts, allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and overturn bans on highly toxic pesticides."