Privatizers reach for our public lands

The House endorsed a massive land grab, but the Senate gave a stay of execution

By Daniel Borgström
This article is in the February 2006 isssue of Z Magazine

Last spring the privatizers were after our Social Security. In the fall they reached for our public lands, including areas in our 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. It narrowly passed in the House by a vote of 217 to 215 in November. 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.

Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev) who co-authored the proposal vowed to reintroduce it in 2006

Real estate and mining interests have been coveting our parks and other public lands for decades. In 2005 they saw their chance and came within inches of achieving their goal. That should be a wakeup call for all of us. Let's take a look at this outrageous proposal, sometimes called "Pombo's Land Grab," after Rep. Richard Pombo, the bill's other co-author and principal sponsor.

Ostensibly the intention of the proposal was to fund Katrina relief and shore up the budget deficit. The land sales were expected to generate about $158 million -- which is enough for approximately 20 hours of war in Iraq.

"It could be the biggest privatization of public lands in a hundred years … a huge change in national policy," said John Leshy, author of the book: "The Mining Law" and former top lawyer for the U.S. Dept. of Interior. "This is all written in terms of mining claims, but it's really a real estate development law."

The Pombo/Gibbons plan was to sell our public lands to mining companies who could resell the lands to real estate developers. This was to be permitted by the proposed changes in US mining law. Of course, even under the old law, it happened that mining properties, once acquired, were used for other purposes. Several ski resorts were originally acquired as mining properties, including resorts at Aspen, Breckendridge, Keystone and Telluride in Colorado; and Park City in Utah.

The difference is that, while real estate speculation did all too often happen under the inadequate provisions of the old law, the proposed law appeared specifically designed to facilitate such development. It would've put scenic recreational areas up for grabs -- the famously beautiful shoreline portion of the Olympic National Park, for example.

The current U.S. mining law was enacted in 1872, when Grant was president, and it hasn't changed much since. It allowed for the sale of land at 1872 prices, $5 an acre, until 1994 when a moratorium was placed on the sales. Mining law does need some major fixes. 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."

However, the Pombo/Gibbons plan wouldn't have fixed the deficiencies of the 1872 mining law; it would've only expanded the giveaway. It was presented as a way to bring in money to our financially starved government. (Starved by what?) Under the proposed law, land would be sold at $1000 per acre, and this paltry income would presumably be used in relief of Katrina damage and other underfunded projects. As one of the privatizers, Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO), put it, "The federal government may be cash-poor, but it is land-rich." Supposedly, by selling off a huge amount of land, the U.S. Treasury could be replenished.

$1,000 an acre is certainly a lot more than the $5 that mining companies used to pay. 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 1990's, 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.

And royalties? 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?

Before assuming that the lack of royalties was an accident, we might take a peek at the scenery behind this story and think of how this incredible cash-poor situation came to pass. Well, you probably remember good old Grover Norquist, the guy we were all talking about the other day. "Starve the beast!" is his favorite saying. Norquist and his bunch advocate defunding the government with tax cuts to the point where we would have to abandon social programs and sell off our national treasures out of sheer desperation. Bush's tax cuts were intended to work this way. They were created, partly, to allow the wealthy to avoid paying their fair share. But they were also created to allow the wealthy to use their ill-gotten tax savings to buy public assets such as land and public utilities, etc. From day one, tax cuts were at the heart of the privatization program.

This provision in the Pombo/Gibbons part of the House budget bill doesn't look like the result of incompetence or poor planning. I'd call it deliberate, intentional planning.

Royalties aren't the only obvious 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. That would be changed. The new law would've required no such proof. Public land could be purchased under these "mining provisions" whether it contains minerals or not. It required only that the buyer "facilitate sustainable economic development," a vague term not implying actual mining activity. It would've permitted a mining company to purchase scenic public land, then sell it to real estate speculators, who could then turn it into whatever suited their fancy.

"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 Rep. Nick Rahall, ranking democrat of the House Resources Committee, who has opposed the bill. John Leshy, former Solicitor General of the Dept. 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."

"We 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.

Picture your favorite hiking trail with a "no trespassing" sign; behind a chain link fence a posh hotel is under construction. Welcome to the "Ownership Society!"

Likewise for those of us outside the corporate sphere who take an interest in mines, minerals and geology. This includes students, teachers and professionals as well as hobbyists, ranging from rock hounds and weekend prospectors to geologists. Trespassers all of them!

Bad enough? There was more. Remember those royalties that the mining companies won't be paying? Well, energy corporations do pay royalties; in 2004 they paid $2 billion for onshore oil, gas and coal development. That too would've changed because under the proposed law the corporations would be permitted to buy the lands and cease paying royalties.

So for a one-time payment of an estimated $158 million, we would've given up our scenic lands while the U.S. Treasury relinquished an annual $2 billion. This sounds like the sort of deal that the globalizers impose on Third World countries.

Actually, the $158 million must be an underestimate. If real estate speculators, petroleum corporations and all other wealthy interests got into action, the amount of land sold at these bargain-basement prices could've been quite astounding, and the resulting income several times greater than the $158 million estimate. Instead of winding up with less than sufficient funds for a day of war in Iraq, enough land might've been sold to keep the blood flowing for weeks or even months. More war for our land!

Rep. Richard Pombo, the congressman who's 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 Pombo 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. Some wondered if Pombo was simply using it as a device to increase his campaign contributions from the corporations. "Pombo can raise a ton of money from the mining industry," said Carl Pope of the Sierra Club. Real estate interests will no doubt also give generously. In 2006 Pombo may be running one of the best funded reelection campaigns in the history of the House.

Well, it did certainly pass the House, by a margin of 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 radical 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.) So does that mean we can kick back and relax? My feeling is that we cannot. Not if we value our national treasures; they require our eternal vigilance. That 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. It's part of that many-headed privatization monster.

The above is an update of an earlier article posted at this site and on Indymedia under the same title.

Virginia Browning contributed to this essay