Public-lands agenda turns more radical, urgent

As political winds start to turn against him, Pombo pushes to sell off forests, parks, wilderness areas

  • Distribution of existing mining claims that would be put up for sale if Congress passes Pombo's proposal. Companies could eventually claim and buy up to $350 million acres of public lands

    Courtesy Environmental Working Group

Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., continued his crusade against environmental regulations in November, tucking provisions into a budget bill that could lead to a massive public-lands sell-off. The proposal, masterminded by Pombo and Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., would put as many as 350 million acres up for sale, including parcels within national parks and wilderness areas. The provisions may be pulled from the bill before it goes to the president for approval, but the fact that Pombo is pushing such a controversial proposal now may shed some light on Republican leaders’ strategy at a time when more subtle policy shifts have been knocked back in the courts (HCN, 10/31/05: Forest Service tries to teach greens a lesson).

"This is the far right’s granddaddy of all land-grabs," says Roger Flynn, director of the Western Mining Action Project. The provision would lift an 11-year moratorium on mining patents, once again allowing mining companies to buy public lands. It would also eliminate a long-standing requirement that mining companies prove that there are valuable mineral deposits before they stake a claim. That means that, for the first time, oil and gas companies, real estate developers, casinos, ski resorts — anyone — could file a claim and buy public land. "The only limit is the size of a purchaser’s checkbook," says Flynn.

Most national parks and wilderness areas, which are officially protected from new mining claims, would be immune from the proposed rule. But Joshua Tree, Yosemite, North Cascades, and Death Valley national parks all have claims that predate the parks’ creation, as do wilderness areas such as the Uncompahgre Wilderness in Colorado. Those lands, too, could end up on the auction block.

The House approved the budget bill Nov. 17, but some observers expect the Senate to reject the mining provisions. This raises questions about Pombo’s intentions: whether it was a bit of pre-election-year grandstanding — or whether Pombo and other Republican leaders are simply impatient with slow reform, and determined to force some action against what they see as onerous environmental regulations.

A budget buster

Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for the House Resources Committee, which Pombo chairs, says the mining proposal came in response to requests from state, county and local officials who want to be able to use mining infrastructure after operations cease. Under the existing rules, companies are permitted to file claims and extract minerals, but the land stays in federal ownership; once the mining companies are finished, they have to remove all roads, buildings and power lines.

The provision has not been widely advertised — it is buried deep in the 187-page budget bill and will receive no public hearings. But in a committee press release, Pombo says his intention is to reduce the federal deficit. The provision would raise the price that mining companies pay, from $2.50 or $5 an acre to $1,000 acre or fair market value, whichever is greater. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that this would raise $158 million over five years.

"When it comes to deficit reduction efforts and providing cheaper energy supplies in America, there are tough choices that have to be made," Pombo says in the press release. "I am proud to lead a committee that made tough choices to move this country forward."

On closer inspection, however, the economic motive crumbles, according to Flynn. Because land sold under the new rules would include mineral rights, the federal government could no longer charge companies royalties on what they extract. Last year, oil, gas, coal and other industries paid approximately $2 billion dollars in royalties, according to the Interior Department. Under Pombo’s proposal, oil and gas companies could buy the land rather than lease it, and thus avoid paying the current 12.5 percent royalty.

Half of the revenue from royalty payments goes to the state and half to the federal treasury, so "local and state budgets will be slashed when royalties are gone," says Flynn. Industry could also skip the federal permitting process, he adds, along with costly and time-consuming environmental studies and public review.

Election-year strategy

The mining law provision is just the latest in a growing list of anti-environment proposals to come out of Pombo’s office. In recent months, he has pushed to revise the National Environmental Policy Act, and convinced the House to approve substantial changes to the Endangered Species Act (HCN, 10/17/05: Pombo takes on the Endangered Species Act). In September, Pombo proposed selling 15 national parks, along with the naming rights to visitor centers and trails, to help balance the federal budget; he quickly dropped the proposal when it came under fire, saying it was just a conversation starter to get support for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Jim DiPeso, policy director for Republicans for Environmental Protection, says Pombo’s strategy is to propose extreme legislation at first so that he can later get away with modifications that are still bad, but not as outrageous as the first round.

But the growing extremism may also have something to do with elections next year, when both Gibbon’s and Pombo’s seats in Congress will be up for grabs.

Some critics say Pombo is hoping to increase his campaign contributions from industry. "If it doesn’t get it to the president’s desk, Pombo can raise a ton of money from the mining industry," says Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. "If it does, he can raise even more."

DiPeso believes that Pombo’s strategy may correlate in a different way with the elections next year. He suspects that Pombo’s urgency stems from a sense that the political winds are changing.

"He may be making the calculation that the gig may be up for the hard-core right-wing Republicans," says DiPeso. "Anything like wholesale privatization or opening up the coastlines and the Arctic to drilling ... will slip away if the Republicans lose their majority in the house."

The author is an HCN intern.

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