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This Land is Their Land
L 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,
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.”
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 property . 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.
Daniel 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.
Z Magazine Archive
CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
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BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
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LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in NYC.
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ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16 in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops.
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CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5-day Seminar at the University of Havana, plus visits to a co-op and educational and medical institutions.
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IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from across the continent to learn skills and build one big union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
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