Environmental groups say that would let a company dust off an old mining claim inside a park or a monument, buy the land and develop it, a charge Gibbons dismisses as a scare tactic
- Mining-land change may alter West
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 24, 2005 12:00 AM
In a late-night vote overshadowed by sexier sound bites about war and taxes, the U.S. House rewrote parts of a 133-year-old mining law, stoking a decades-old battle over who should control vast open spaces across the West.
The stakes are high: billions of dollars in mining revenues, $2.4 billion a year in Arizona alone, and millions of acres of public land spread out among forests and rangelands or nestled next to national parks and monuments.
The House measure would allow mining companies or other private interests to buy the land and develop it, even if there was nothing there to mine. It could open impoverished areas to economic investment but close scenic spots to recreational users and strip those spots of environmental protection.
Backers of the rewrite say it's an attempt to modernize outdated laws and protect the economic health of rural mining communities, which have suffered with the ebb and flow of ore prices. They insist the bill includes strong protection for sensitive lands and enough mining-related requirements to fend off speculators. It also creates a richer revenue source, they say, raising the purchase price of a mining claim from as little as $2.50 an acre to at least $1,000 an acre.
But even at that price, the result is a near-giveaway of public lands, opponents say, who paint a darker picture, one rife with abuse of already weak laws. They say the proposed changes are not so much about mining as about opening valuable land to developers, who would build ski resorts, housing developments and shopping centers on the back doorsteps of "special places" like the Grand Canyon.
One environmental group produced an illustration depicting a sprawling subdivision on the Canyon's North Rim, a community they named "Pombotown," after Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., the committee chairman who ushered the bill to the House floor last weekend.
The revisions were tacked on to a huge deficit-reduction package that survived by two votes, but the changes were not included in the Senate version. Both sides are girding for a final fight when negotiators try to reconcile differences after the Thanksgiving recess.
"People in Arizona should be very concerned about it," said Don Steuter, who watches mining issues for Arizona's Sierra Club chapter. "There has been so much abuse in the past with these laws. There's a long history of it, and they're pointing us even more in that direction. It could turn into a fire sale."
Industry still lucrative
The bill has put Arizona's conservationists at odds with one of the state's oldest industries, which is still among its most lucrative. Arizona regularly leads the nation in copper production and ranks among the top five states in silver, gemstones, sand and gravel, and other metals and minerals. In 2003, the state's mineral production topped $2.4 billion; the copper industry alone produced $2.7 billion in direct and indirect economic impacts.
The Environmental Working Group estimates that there are nearly 642,000 acres of existing mining claims on public lands in Arizona, with nearly a third of the land in Yavapai, Pinal and Mohave counties. Thousands of those claims are inside a national forest, park or wilderness area or within five miles of one.
What worries many conservationists is that, with the change, mining companies could not only buy the land but develop it without the public environmental impact studies required under existing laws. The changes could also derail land exchanges that returned some value to the public, Steuter said.
The bill's author, Rep. Jim Gibbons, said that's not his intent. Gibbons, R-Nev., said the measure was written to promote economic development in the rural West, largely by privatizing the land where mining claims are filed.
Under his proposal, a mining company could skip some of the costliest environmental studies required before digging into public lands. And once the ore was exhausted, they could leave behind for local communities the roads, power lines and other infrastructure they now must erase.
"Without this measure, the jobs and infrastructure of these communities can literally disappear when a mine closes," he said.
His bill lifts an 11-year moratorium on mining claim patents, the term for the purchase of land where ore is found, and gives companies more leeway in staking their claims, adding economic development as an allowed use. Companies would also face less-stringent standards on what constitutes a mining operation. Simple "mineral development work" would validate a claim under the Gibbons measure.
The National Mining Association and other lobbying groups endorsed the rewrite. Association President Kraig Naasz said the measure would "give mining communities greater opportunities for sustained economic growth and help attract investments." If the mining companies can't purchase the public land outright, "these critical assets must be removed."
Even some opponents concede the idea doesn't sound nefarious, but they say the consequences of the bill are buried in language that has confounded experts on both sides.
For example, in one section the measure specifically bars the sale of lands within national parks, wildlife refuges, national conservation areas or wilderness areas. In another section, that ban is apparently modified with the phrase "subject to valid existing rights."
Environmental groups say that would let a company dust off an old mining claim inside a park or a monument, buy the land and develop it, a charge Gibbons dismisses as a scare tactic.
Other proposals that look good on the surface are similarly flawed, foes say. The bill's supporters trumpet the increase in price to purchase a mining claim from as low as $2.50 an acre, a rate that survived from 1872, to $1,000 an acre or the appraised market value, whichever is higher.
The problem, according to several groups, is that appraisals on mining claims are usually low, sometimes as low as $100 to $200 an acre, in part because of the typically rugged location and in part because the value of any minerals is not included. As a result, a claim would rarely cost more than $1,000 an acre.
Open space at issue
Equally troubling to the conservation groups is the loss of open space. The law would let mining companies buy not only parcels with mining claims but land adjacent to such claims or operations. Backers say that provision would promote better management, but opponents say it unfairly locks up too much land.
"This is a loss for Arizonans," said Tucson resident Mary Kidwell, who has fought mining proposals in the Empire-Fagan Valley area southeast of Tucson. "We could soon find 'private property' signs blocking the trailhead of favorite hunting grounds or picnic spots."
Conservation groups say that at the very least, Gibbons and Pombo should have introduced the bill separately, instead of attaching it to such a wide-ranging and politically sensitive measure. Some groups suspect the mining rewrites fell victim to other deals and they fear it could survive talks with the Senate in the same way.
But Gibbons said he held several hearings on the proposal and has hidden nothing.
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