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Privatizers reach for our public lands

by Daniel Borgström Thursday, Dec. 08, 2005 at 2:46 AM

Proposed "mining" law would open public lands to real estate developers at bargain-basement prices.

Last spring the privatizers were after our Social Security. This fall they're reaching for our public lands, including areas in our national parks. Death Valley and Yellowstone could be among the parks effected. Tucked away in the House version of the Budget Reconciliation Bill is a provision to sell land to mining companies at giveaway prices. It passed in the House by a vote of 217 to 215 on November 18th. Now it's going to the Senate.

Former top lawyer for the U.S. Dept. of Interior John Leshy said, "It could be the largest privatization of federal land in the last 100 years." Leshy called the proposal "a real estate deal that has nothing to do with mining…a huge change in national policy."

Ostensibly the intention of the proposal is to fund Katrina relief and shore up the budget deficit. The massive land sales could generate an estimated 8 million -- which is enough for approximately 20 hours of war in Iraq.

The plan is to sell our public lands to mining companies who could resell the lands to real estate developers. This would 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 the ones at Aspen, Breckendridge, Keystone and Telluride in Colorado; and Park City in Utah.

The difference is that, while real estate speculation could happen under the inadequate provisions of the old law, the new law appears specifically designed to facilitate such development. It puts scenic recreational areas up for grabs.

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, 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 House plan won't fix the deficiencies of the 1872 mining law, it would only expand the giveaway. It's being presented as a way to bring in money to our financially starved government. (Starved by what?) Under the new law, land would be sold at 00 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 can be replenished.

,000 an acre is certainly a lot more than the 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 billion. Chevron and Manville Sales corporation acquired 2,000 acres of national forest in Montana, gaining control of 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 new law will allow mining companies to pay no royalties. How could the framers of the proposal have overlooked royalties? Incompetence?

Before assuming that the lack of royalties is 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, land, etc. From day one, tax cuts were at the heart of the privatization program.

This provision in the House budget bill wasn't the result of incompetence or poor planning. It was deliberate, intentional planning.

Royalties aren't the only obvious omission from the new 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 requires no such proof. Public land could be purchased under these "mining provisions" whether it contains minerals or not. It requires only that the buyer "facilitate sustainable economic development," a vague term not implying actual mining activity. It would permit a mining company to purchase scenic public land, then sell it to a real estate developer, who could then turn it into whatever suits 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!"

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

So for a one-time payment of an estimated 8 million, we'll be giving up our scenic lands and the U.S. Treasury will relinquish an annual billion. This sounds like the sort of deal that the globalizers impose on Third World countries.

Actually, the 8 million -- enough for about 20 hours of war -- must be an underestimate. When real estate developers, petroleum corporations and all other wealthy speculators get into action, the amount of land sold at these bargain-basement prices could be quite astounding, and the resulting income several times greater than the 8 million estimate. Instead of getting less than enough for a day of war in Iraq, we might even get enough to fund a couple weeks of war. More war for our land!

The congressman who introduced the proposed mining law is Rep. Richard Pombo, a Republican from Tracy, California. Pombo is 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 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. Pombo may be running one of the best funded reelection campaigns in the history of the House.

Well, it did pass the House. So we cannot safely assume the Senate will reject it. At any rate, even if it doesn't get through this year, it's not something we can ignore. This 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.

Virginia Browning contributed to this article

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