Pombo Measure Just Might Allow Mining in Parks

Remember that highly creative budget reconciliation bill that Representative Richard Pombo engineered through the House Resources Committee that he chairs? The one that would open up public lands to more mining in the name of economic development? Well, it turns out that it still contains a poison pill or two that potentially could open up 18 national parks in the West to mining.
When the measure first surfaced in the Resources Committee back on October 26, it called for 5.5 million acres of public lands, including national park acreage, to be made available for mining. After that generated some outcries, Mr. Pombo amended the measure to do away with that section. Or so that’s the word his spokesman, Brian Kennedy, handed out.
But there remain two sections of the proposed legislation that concern park advocates. One is under Section 6204, “Mineral Development Lands Available for Purchase.” That section allows for “holders of mining claims,” to purchase adjoining acreage that contains patented or unpatented mining claims.
The other problematic area is the amendment tacked onto the measure supposedly to exempt national parks from these provisions. The wording seems in fact to exempt from that amendment folks who hold “valid existing rights” to claims within the parks.

Now, the problem with interpreting legislation is that often it’s so horribly written it’s near impossible to discern exactly what its authors are hoping to accomplish. And then there are what I’ll dub to be “black holes” of cleverly worded phrases that get overlooked because they’re buried deep within the poorly written sections.
So I turned to Craig Obey of the National Parks Conservation Association and John Leshy, the Interior Department’s top lawyer during the Clinton administration, to help me understand the legislation. They tried their best, but admitted that the 184-page document is pretty convoluted.
Obey, NPCA’s vice president for governmental affairs, told me it seems that one section of the legislation “provides for the sale of unpatented claims,” of which there are 903 inside the parks.
“It’s pretty clear that national parks, wilderness areas, wildlife refuges are not protected from that,” he pointed out. “So, what it would mean, for $1000 per acre, sites in national parks could be patented.”
Leshy, who these days works as a law professor at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law and for the Wyss Foundation, which focuses on land preservation in the Intermountain West, says he’s particularly concerned with the amendment that supposedly places parks off limits.
While that amendment states that the legislation does not apply to national parks, it contains a phrase that seems to exempt from that provision “people who have valid existing rights in those parks,” Leshy notes.
“Those 903 claimants, are they sheltered from that exemption?” he asks. “This is kind of a puzzle. Nobody really knows that it means. I would assume that the people who have those claims in the parks would say they have valid existing rights to take advantage of this program.”
And then there are another 638 holders of patented claims inside the parks. Leshy wonders if the Section 6204 language means they could begin purchasing adjoining acres that once were mined.
“Who knows what valid existing rights means,” he says. “A court would have to tell us.”
The measure is scheduled to come up before the full House on Thursday, so work those phones to express your displeasure with these provisions.
“People are scrambling now to prevent this from happening, because it’s a pretty nefarious provision,” says Leshy. “It’s pretty awful. It opens up the potential for a lot of mischief.”

So, what park properties are in peril? Here’s the list:

Bering Land Bridge National National Park.........8 unpatented claims
Denali National Park and Preserve.................28 patented and 21 unpatented claims
Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve...........20 patented claims
Kenai Fjords National Park............................1 unpatented claim
Lake Clark National Park and Preserve.............13 patented claims
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve...297 patented and 27 unpatented claims Yukon-Charley Rivers National Park................15 patented and 112 unpatented claims
Grand Canyon National Park...........................5 patented claims
Saguaro National Park..................................6 patented claims
Death Valley National Park..........................119 patented and 286 unpatented claims
Mojave National Park..................................76 patented and 432 unpatented claims
Joshua Tree National Park............................12 patented and 1 unpatented claims
Glacier National Park....................................4 patented claims
Great Basin National Park.............................10 unpatented claims
Lake Mead National Recreation Area.................32 patented claims
North Cascades National Park..........................8 patented claims
Olympic National Park...................................3 patented claims
Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area............5 unpatented claims

Comments

Never have I been more ashamed to be from Tracy (the district that Rep. Pombo represents in Congress.) In September, I had written to Resources Chairman Pombo and called his office to express my distinct displeasure at his erstwhile proposal to sell off 15 national parks and naming rights within other parks in order to get Democratic support for drilling in ANWR. In light of today\'s proposal, I am now calling and writing to him again to continue my monologue and to excoriate him for continuing to maintain such unprincipled positions as these, and to remind him of the fact that among his constituents, at least one of them sees through the smokescreen that his staff generates and recognizes this effort for the transparent piece of political manipulation that this is. If I have the opportunity to meet with him when he returns home, I will be sure to express my opposition in equally clear terms. I certainly will not be voting for him come next election.