Outdoors, sports groups lobby for defeat of mining law changes
DENVER ” With a battle brewing in Congress over a bill that could open millions of acres of public land in the West to mining, the measure’s opponents in Colorado have launched a frontal attack.
More than 40 hunting and fishing groups are lobbying senators to fight the House-backed mining provisions when a conference committee works out the differences between the two chambers.
The Colorado Mountain Club and four other outdoors groups have asked leaders of the Senate Budget Committee and the Energy and Natural Resources Committee to strip the provisions from the budget bill.
They fear the proposed changes to an 1872 mining law will lead to sales of large tracts of federal land used by the public that are home to wildlife and important watersheds.
“The Rocky Mountains are our lifeblood, the reason we live here and the reason people come and visit here. Now, people will come and see a mountainside dotted with ‘No Trespassing’ signs,” said Vera Smith, conservation director for The Colorado Mountain Club.
Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., has said he will oppose the mining proposals.
His fellow GOP Sens. Craig Thomas of Wyoming and Conrad Burns of Montana came out against the measure last week.
A spokesman for the House Resources Committee, which was behind the mining provisions, said the sponsors are working on changes to protect access to public land by hunters and anglers.
Matt Streit said Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., head of the Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee, has made it clear that he’s willing to modify the language.
“He wants to make sure that everybody’s concerns are addressed,” Streit said.
Members of the conference committee that will resolve differences between the Senate and House budget bills might be appointed later this week, Streit said.
Still, Gibbons and Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., Resources Committee chairman, are defending the basic aim of the mining provisions.
They have said the changes would raise $158 million over five years by dramatically increasing the prices for buying public land with gold and other hard-rock minerals to $1,000 per acre or fair market value, whichever is higher.
The cost of “patenting,” or buying, mining claims now ranges from $2.50 to $5 an acre.
Environmentalists and others long have pushed for overhauling the law that dates to the administration of Ulysses S. Grant.
Congress approved a moratorium in 1994 on new sales of mining claims.
The House bill would lift the moratorium and worse, critics warn.
They say it will open tens of millions of acres of federal land not just to mining, but all kinds of development.
“It’s a misinterpretation and it’s flat-out wrong,” Streit said of that concern.
University of Colorado law professor Mark Squillace said he doesn’t think so.
He was one of 19 professors specializing in federal mining, public land and natural resources law who sent a letter last week to Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s energy and water subcommittee.
The professors wrote that the legislation “could have devastating effects on federal land management and policy.”
Squillace said the proposal appears to eliminate the requirement that an applicant wanting to buy a mining claim show that the site contains minerals that could be profitably developed.
“As I read it, if you pay your maintenance fees, your rights are vested even prior to discovery of a valuable mineral deposit,” he said.
Another concern is that land next to claims, even mined-out sites, likely could be bought, Squillace added.
That raises the specter of development at such sites as the New World Mine near Cooke City, Mont., he said.
The federal government paid $65 million in 1996 to stop a gold mine proposed in the historic mining area near Cooke City.
The project was controversial because the site is upstream from Yellowstone National Park and at the headwaters of three rivers.
Supporters of the changes to the mining law are promoting it as an economic boost for rural areas.
They say communities can suffer when mining ends and the land remains in federal hands.
Squillace said there are other ways to shore up rural economies.
He said it would be better to impose a modest royalty on mineral production.
Royalties on coal, oil and gas range from 8 percent to 12.5 percent while none exists for hard-rock minerals.
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