Mining Measure Would Reopen Federal Land Sales

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A House committee has approved a measure to resume sales of federal lands across the West to people with mining claims, lifting a 12-year moratorium. It could make it easier for companies and individuals to buy federal lands and turn them into mines... or vacation resorts.


A House committee has approved a measure to resume selling off federal lands across the West to people with mining claims. The provision would lift a moratorium on land sales that's been in place for 12 years. And as NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports, it could make it easier than it has been in decades for companies and individuals to buy federal lands and turn them into mines or vacation resorts.


Fifteen years ago, Clay Thorne was tromping around the saguaro cactuses in red rock formations of Tonto National Forest near Phoenix. He discovered gypsum.

Mr. CLAY THORNE: It's a white quartz-looking material and very soft. It's what you make wallboard out of.

SHOGREN: In the gypsum were fine grains of gold and silver. Using an 1872 law that's still in effect, he laid claim to more than 3,500 acres of land and applied to buy it for $2.50 an acre. He was just in time. A few years later, Congress put a moratorium on new applications by miners to buy federal land.

Mr. THORNE: I think that I have done everything that's required by the government to get the land. I've spent my money. I've prospected it. I staked it out. And I filed the right proper paperwork. I paid the fees.

SHOGREN: But the sale has been held up because government says the land Thorne wants doesn't have enough gypsum on it to support a profitable mine. Thorne disagrees and he's appealing their decision.

Mr. THORNE: We have a series of bureaucratic people who are you might say trying to take it away from us.

SHOGREN: If the new proposal now pending in Congress becomes law, people like Thorne will again be able to buy large swaths of federal land across the West, but the price will go up to a thousand dollars an acre or the market price, whichever is higher. It's still controversial. Critics say the provision is written so broadly that the government would be forced to sell even when people trying to buy the land can't show that mining would be profitable there.

Mr. ROGER FLYNN (University of Colorado): This would go back to the days of the robber barons, of selling off our prime public lands to real estate developers and mining companies.

SHOGREN: Roger Flynn is a pro-environmental lawyer who specializes in mining issues and teaches law at the University of Colorado.

Mr. FLYNN: With a little bit of paperwork and some field activity, you can go out, anyone, a United States citizen, including corporations, and buy public lands.

SHOGREN: Republican congressional staffers say the provision won't provoke large land grabs. They also say it's important to allow these sales to help local communities. Right now when a mine on public land closes, any development has to be removed, but if the land were privately owned, any facilities could be used to provide jobs. Carol Raulston of the National Mining Association says this is only fair.

Ms. CAROL RAULSTON (National Mining Association): If they're going to stop the boom-and-bust cycle that has been part of the negative history of mining, there's got to be some way to provide for some economic future for these communities once the mining activity has ceased. And I think that's all this provision is trying to do.

SHOGREN: She doesn't think that companies would just pretend to mine as a way to get their hands on property, but once the land is private, the new owner can do anything with it. For example, Clay Thorne says if he gets the property on Tonto National Forest, he'll sell at least part of it. It's a short drive from Phoenix and right next to the massive Lake Roosevelt, a perfect spot for vacation homes.

Mr. THORNE: The land itself, it wasn't worth anything but a few hundred dollars an acre, you know, when we originally went in. The real estate value has increased tremendously since then.

SHOGREN: He says it's worth $10,000 an acre or even more. Since he would have thousands of acres to sell, he could end up a multimillionaire.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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