Bipartisan uprising sinks public-lands selloff

  A proposal to sell public lands landed in the trash can on Dec. 13, thanks to objections from Western senators — both Democrat and Republican.

Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., and Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., had tried to overturn an 11-year moratorium on selling federal land to mining companies by attaching a proposal to House budget legislation. Critics said the provision would have allowed developers to buy millions of acres of public land for as little as $1,000 per acre (HCN, 11/28/05: Public-lands agenda turns more radical, urgent).

The Pombo-Gibbons proposal immediately sparked a grassroots uprising. The leaders of more than 700 hunting groups, shooting and archery clubs, and conservation groups came out against the provision. They persuaded many politicians to condemn it, including Democratic congressmen and Republicans such as Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana, Sen. Craig Thomas of Wyoming, and Sen. Wayne Allard of Colorado.

"The mining provision never belonged in the budget reconciliation package," said Sen. Thomas.

People like Joel Gossett of Platteville, Colo., a Republican gun-rights advocate and an avid hunter, are delighted with the provision’s withdrawal. "I grew up in Colorado, and I can name a hundred places where I can no longer camp," because private landowners closed off access, Gossett says. That makes the public land increasingly important, he says. "It belongs to the citizens of this country. It’s the ultimate property-rights issue."

But the issue is far from settled: A spokesman for Pombo said he and Gibbons will try again next year to "modernize" the 1872 Mining Law.

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