A Stealth Giveaway of Our Public Lands

It’s bad enough that the Mining Act of 1872 remains the governing statute for mining on public lands. The handiwork of the most corrupt administration in U.S. history until now, Ulysses S. Grant’s, this law has allowed mining companies to cart away more than $245 billion in royalty-free minerals over the past 125 years. For only $2.50 to $5 an acre, large mining companies could pillage the public land, privatize the profits and walk away from the toxic runoff that contaminated rivers, drinking supplies and soil.

Now, through a subterfuge that avoids public debate and congressional hearings, the giveaway of public lands could get even worse. Property-rights zealot Rep. Richard Pombo of California has quietly inserted a provision into the massive budget reconciliation bill that would authorize the Interior Department to sell off tens of millions of acres of public land.

The provision purports to be a way to raise funds (an estimated $158 million) to reduce the federal deficit. But that’s just the cover story. If he were serious about reducing the deficit, Pombo would rally behind a new royalty system proposed by Representative Nick Rahall of West Virginia that would generate more than twice as much as Pombo’s over five years. And it would do so by leasing, not selling, the land. Rahall said, “We’re setting up Uncle Sam to be Uncle Sucker.” An Interior Department official under President Clinton said the proposal, if enacted, “could be the largest privatization of federal land in the last 100 years.”

Like so many things in Washington today, the Pombo provision is not about facts or rational debate. It’s an ideological grudge match. The point is to eviscerate government. As Pombo told The Washington Post, “In some states primarily owned by the federal government, it’s important that more of that land become private property. These environmental groups want the federal government to own everything.”

To Pombo’s fact-challenged mind, the best stewards of our land are mining companies, oil and gas drillers and real estate developers. He has enough confidence in them that his plan would sell two million acres in or near national parks, wildlife refuges and wilderness areas.

The shocking thing is how far this crazy proposal has gotten while attracting so little attention (although check out these two noteworthy articles in The Washington Post and Grist magazine). Pombo has issued no press releases touting his giveaway of our national wealth because he surely realizes it would fail. Instead, he quietly slipped his provision into a major budget bill whose many, many particulars will not be openly debated by a scandal-distracted, corporate-dominated Congress.

The fate of the Pombo provision now resides with the House-Senate conference committee that will work out a compromise bill in December or January. In the meantime, this stealth measure threatens to become a fitting emblem for our time: a rapacious act of plunder of the common wealth carried out by the people’s own representatives.