What is it, exactly, that makes the West special? There are certainly many answers to that question, but perhaps the one that Westerners would give more than any other is our "wide open spaces."

Despite much development, there is still open space in the West: space to hike, to hunt, to breathe free, to escape the hemmed-in life that most of us lead too much of the time. That space is our birthright: It is America’s public land, held in trust by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. The region is what it is because there is so much publicly owned land.

California Republican Rep. Richard Pombo, chairman of the House Resources Committee, wants to change all that. Working behind the scenes, he succeeded in attaching a series of amendments to the Deficit Reduction Act (that is, the Budget Bill) that was recently passed by the House. These provisions, adopted with little debate, have the potential to destroy the West as we know it.

The amendments are ostensibly reforms to the Mining Law of 1872, the antiquated statute that still governs mining claims on public land. But their impact would extend far beyond mineral extraction. For starters, Pombo’s proposals would re-open public land to the private purchase of mining claims. A moratorium on such "patenting" of claims was adopted by Congress in 1994, and it has been renewed every year since in recognition of the outrageously obsolete provisions of the Mining Law of 1872, which allowed such purchases at the rate of $2.50 to $5 per acre. Pombo would raise that rate to $1,000 per acre or "fair market value," whichever is greater.

That may sound like an improvement, but the amendment is written to ensure that that is all the purchaser would have to pay. This "fair market value" does not count the value of any mineral resources under the property, and the new property owners are exempted from paying any royalties on minerals extracted from the land — even if those minerals are worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Furthermore, once the land is transferred to a private owner, that owner could resell it to developers without conducting any mining at all.

That is bad enough. But in section 6104 of his proposal, Pombo opens up an entirely new way to privatize public land. This section would allow public land to be purchased for any purpose that would "facilitate sustainable economic development," a term that Pombo leaves undefined. Land purchased under 6104 would not even have to contain valuable minerals, as long as part of the land is "contiguous to patented or unpatented mining claims or mill sites where mineral development, including mining, has been conducted…"

In the past 150 years, mining claims have been filed virtually throughout the West, and "mineral development" is defined so loosely that simply staking a claim could qualify. This provision could open to claiming and purchase almost all public land not specifically withdrawn for another purpose. According to the Bureau of Land Management, the amount of land that could be sold off is 15-20 million acres. Citing the extremely vague language of the Pombo amendments, however, many analysts believe that the total public land at risk comes to hundreds of millions of acres.

Here is a small sample of what Pombo’s proposals could mean in southern Oregon. The Forest Service estimates that there are 580 active mining claims on the Siskiyou National Forest, covering about 11,600 acres. One of these areas is Rough and Ready Creek, a 22,000-acre mostly roadless watershed that has the highest concentration of rare and sensitive plants in Oregon. For more than 10 years, a miner named Walter Freeman has been battling the Forest Service over 4,360 acres of claims in this watershed, where he wants to develop nickel-laterite strip-mining, ore processing and roads for giant ore trucks that would cross the pristine creek and its tributaries at 17 different places.

If Pombo’s provisions stand, not only would 4,360 acres of Rough and Ready Creek be available for immediate purchase by Mr. Freeman, but his $600 million "takings" lawsuit against the Forest Service would receive a tremendous boost. Rep. Pombo is one of the chief promoters of the concept of compensation for "takings."

Fortunately, Pombo’s privatization scheme is not yet law. His amendments are not part of the Senate version of the Budget Bill, and on Dec. 1, six Western governors signed a letter opposing Pombo’s changes, calling them "ill-conceived" and with "sinister intent." Several senators, including Wayne Allard of Colorado and Max Baucus of Montana, have also expressed their concern.

We must make sure that the Senate rejects any conference budget bill that contains these disastrous amendments. The public lands of the West are not Richard Pombo’s to dispose of. They are ours, and it is our responsibility to defend them.

Pepper Trail is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a biologist and writer who lives in Ashland, Oregon.