Our Public Lands Remain Safe — For Now

The outrageous proposal by Reps. Richard Pombo and Jim Gibbons to sell off tens of millions of acres of public land at rock-bottom prices — including two million acres in the national parks — has failed. That was a close call. OTC readers may recall that the two Representatives had quietly inserted a provision into the massive budget reconciliation bill. The goal was to escape detection, prevent open debate and thwart attempts to strip the measure from the budget bill. (See also this account in Grist.)

The stealth tactic apparently backfired. After intense opposition materialized from hunters, environmentalists, local governments, and governors, Rep. Gibbons withdrew the provision. If it had slipped through Congress, it would have authorized the largest giveaway of public lands in modern history.

This brazen subterfuge may have paradoxically inspired a new campaign for reform. For decades, the grotesque deficiencies of the Mining Act of 1872 have been well-known, but critics have never been able to build the political momentum to actually achieve reform. Invariably, mining, timber and cattle business interests flexed their muscles to preempt any change in the law.

Now that so much controversy and attention has been galvanized by the Gibbons/Pombo gambit, however, a new crusade to safeguard the public lands seems to be underway. Legislation introduced by Reps. Nick Rahall, Jay Inslee and Christopher Shays seeks to permanently protect wilderness areas, wildlife refuges and roadless areas of national forests that remain vulnerable to mining and development.

It’s about time.