This Land is Their Land


ast spring the privatizers
were after Social Security. In the fall they reached for public
lands, including areas in national parks. Death Valley and Yellowstone
were on the hit list. Tucked away in the House version of the Budget
Reconciliation Bill was a provision to sell land to “mining”
companies at giveaway prices. In November 2005 it narrowly passed
in the House by a vote of 217 to 215. Then it went to the Senate
where it was rejected—for 2005 at least. 

“It’s a welcome stay of execution,” said Death Valley
Park Superintendent J.T. Reynolds. Representative Jim Gibbons (R-NV),
who co-authored the proposal, vowed to reintroduce it in 2006. 

Real estate and mining interests have been coveting parks and other
public lands for decades. In 2005 they saw their chance and came
within inches of achieving their goal. This outrageous proposal—
sometimes called Pombo’s Land Grab, after Richard Pombo (R-CA),
the bill’s other co-author and principal sponsor—was osten-
sibly intended to fund Katrina relief and shore up the budget deficit.
The land sales were expected to generate about $158 million. 

“It could be the biggest privatization of public lands in 100
years…a huge change in national policy,” said John Leshy,
author of

The Mining Law

and former top lawyer for the U.S.
Department of Interior. “This is all written in terms of mining
claims, but it’s really a real estate development law.”

The House plan was to sell public lands to mining companies who
could then resell the lands to real estate developers. This was
to be permitted by proposed changes in U.S. mining law. Of course,
even under the old law, mining properties, once acquired, were used
for other purposes. Several ski resorts were originally acquired
as mining properties. The difference is that the proposed new law
appeared specifically designed to facilitate such development. 

True, mining law does need some major fixes. The current U.S. mining
law was enacted in 1872 and hasn’t changed much since. It allowed
for the sale of land at $5 an acre until 1994 when a moratorium
was placed on sales. Retired Senator Dale Bumpers of Arizona said
a couple of years ago, “This archaic, 132-year-old law permits
mining companies to gouge billions of dollars worth of minerals
from public lands, without paying one red cent to the real owners,
the American people. And, these same companies often leave the unsuspecting
taxpayers with the bill for the billions of dollars required to
clean up the environmental mess left behind.” 

The Pombo/Gibbons plan, however, wouldn’t have fixed the deficiencies
of the 1872 law. Instead, it would have expanded the giveaway. Under
the proposed law, land would be sold at $1,000 per acre and this
paltry income would presumably be used in relief of Katrina damage
and other under- funded projects. 

Certainly, $1,000 an acre is a lot more than $5—but it’s
still not much. Even leaving aside real estate investment, some
mining properties produce millions of dollars of minerals per acre.
In the 1990s Barrick, a Canadian company, purchased 1,900 acres
near Elko, Nevada and got gold reserves worth $10 billion. Chevron
and Manville Sales corporation acquired 2,000 acres of national
forest in Montana, gaining control of $16 billion in platinum and
palladium reserves. 

Petroleum companies pay between 8 percent and 12.5 percent royalties
on what they get out of the ground. The Pombo/Gibbons law would’ve
allowed mining companies to pay no royalties. How could the framers
of the proposal have overlooked royalties? Incompetence? Not likely.
Bush’s tax cuts were created to allow the wealthy to avoid
paying their fair share and to use their savings to buy public assets
such as land, utilities, etc. 

Royalties aren’t the only omission from the proposed mining
law. The 1872 law, for all its shortcomings, did at least require
proof of an economically feasible ore deposit. If you said a property
contained copper or platinum or silver or boron or pumice or whatever,
you had to prove it to the government before you could buy it. The
new law would not require such proof. It requires only that the
buyer “facilitate sustainable economic development,” a
vague term not implying actual mining activity. 

“Sustainable economic development could include condominium
construction, ski resorts, gaming casinos, you name it, flying in
the face of America’s commitment to protect these lands,”
said Representative Nick Rahall of West Virginia, ranking Democrat
of the House Resources Committee, who opposed the bill. John Leshy,
former solicitor general of the Department of Interior under Clinton,
said the big losers would be “the hunters, anglers, hikers,
ranchers, and millions of American families who could soon find
locked gates on previously public lands.” 

are literally looking at the prospect of McDonalds, Wal- Marts,
condos, or any other type of commercial or private developments
springing up smack dab within some of America’s most cherished
units of the National Park System,” stated Rahall. 

Bad enough? There’s more. Remember those royalties that the
mining companies won’t be paying? Well, in 2004 energy corporations
paid $2 billion in royalties for onshore oil, gas, and coal development.
That too would’ve changed. Under the proposed law corporations
would be permitted to buy the land and pay no royalties. 

Rep. Pombo, the real mover behind the proposed “mining”
law, is a Republican from Tracy, California. He’s co-author
of the book

This Land is Our Land: How to end the war on private

. It came out in 1996, the same year the Sierra Club
honored Pombo with their “Eco-Thug” award— something
he doesn’t include in his website biography; nor does he mention
his relationship with indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. 

Pombo’s mining law was so blatantly extreme that few people
expected it to get through the House. But it passed by two votes.
Although several Republicans broke ranks and opposed it, no Democrats
voted for it. The Senate, despite its Republican majority, didn’t
accept it. It’s something the extreme right was pushing and,
as of now, quite a number of those folks are being indicted and
may be headed for prison. (To privatized prisons, I presume.) 

The land-grab proposal, like the Social Security privatization plan,
is something we can expect to see coming back again and again in
one form or another.


Borgström is an ex-Marine against the war, empire, and privatization.
He is from a mining family and has helped locate mining claims. Virginia
Browning contributed to this essay.