Babbitt protests a $1 billion giveaway

  -How can a public official give away $1 billion without going to jail?" asked Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt as he signed over 110 acres of public land in Clark County, Idaho, worth $1 billion, to a Danish mining company for $275.

To drive home the need for reform, Babbitt signed the deed with an ink-dip pen that belonged to President Ulysses S. Grant - the original signer of the 1872 Mining Law.

Babbitt then called on Congress to change the "tawdry" patent process that allows mining companies to gain title to public land for as little as $2.50 an acre. He also asked Congress to approve a 12.5 percent royalty on profits from minerals taken from federal land. In the case of the 110 acres in Idaho, such a fee would have netted the government $125 million.

Reform, however, is being stymied by "sham" proposals now going through Congress, says Beverly Reese of the nonprofit Mineral Policy Center. Lawmakers recently voted to continue the patent process at the 1872 prices for filed claims and at fair market value for the surface land for new claims. Rep. Don Young and Sen. Frank Murkowski, both Alaska Republicans, have also vowed to attach an industry-supported mining reform proposal onto the upcoming budget reconciliation package. In their present form, the Alaska legislators' proposals allow patenting and require companies to pay royalties not greater than 3.5 percent.

Says Reese: "If they succeed in attaching the proposal, that's it - mining reform will be dead."

* Chip Giller