Battling over the bottom line

  Congress and the Clinton administration have finally called a truce on the national budget. On Nov. 19, the House and Senate approved a $385 billion spending package, including $14.9 billion for the Interior Department.

Both sides are claiming victory, but Will Hart, spokesman for Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, calls the process "frustrating." "(We were) dealing with an administration that does not ... see resource-based communities as important," he says.

Republicans agreed to drop several proposals, including:

* A rider that would have stopped the government from raising the amount of royalties it collects from public-lands oil drilling;

* A provision that would have prevented grizzly bear reintroduction in some Western states;

* A rider that would have allowed federal officials to bypass certain plant and animal surveys on federal lands proposed for logging in the Pacific Northwest;

* A limitation on noise restrictions at Grand Canyon National Park;

* A ban on proposed revisions of the Bureau of Land Management's hardrock mining regulations, known as the "3809" rules.

The final version of the budget replaced most of the funds cut from Clinton's Lands Legacy program earlier in the budget negotiations, thus earmarking about $400 million for the purchase of environmentally sensitive lands. The Land and Water Conservation Fund also received about $40 million, which Kevin Collins of the National Parks and Conservation Association calls "a significant acknowledgement that this program is on its way back."

There were a few concessions on the other side of the table, including an agreement to extend existing federal grazing leases for 10 years while the Interior Department completes environmental studies.

The administration also struck a deal on a controversial rider introduced by Sen. Craig. The rider took aim at an Interior Department legal opinion, which said that the 1872 Mining Law limited mine-waste dumping sites on public lands to five acres per claim (HCN, 5/24/99). Craig's rider would have excluded mines proposed before May 21, 1999, from the restrictions, but a compromise measure will exempt only mines proposed before Interior Solicitor John Leshy issued his opinion on Nov. 7, 1997.

The impacts of the rider will depend on the Interior Department's interpretation of the law, but neither side is very happy with the deal. "It doesn't go as far as we'd hoped, but it does protect the mining plans in existence," says Hart.

"Environmental protection has been increased from this time last year," says Alan Septoff of the Mineral Policy Center in Washington, D.C., "but proposed mines that were grandfathered in have been rewarded for breaking the law."

* Michelle Nijhuis

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