This land may not be your land - development in National Parks
This Land May Not Be Your Land
House bill would allow mining claim holders to purchase the federal
property. Some fear it would open national parks to development.
By Janet Wilson and Tim Reiterman
LATimes Staff Writers
December 4, 2005
MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE — Standing at the foot of billion-year-old Stripe
Mountain, acting park chief Larry Whalon gazed up at ancient slopes banded
in limestone and copper.
"In 10 years, there could be a big house right here. Lots of houses,"
The entire mountain in the desert preserve west of Las Vegas is covered by
federal mining claims, and newly proposed legislation would allow claim
holders to purchase this land outright.
Supporters say the mining law changes, part of a spending bill passed by
the U.S. House of Representatives last month, are intended to revive dying
rural mining towns. But the possible consequences have provoked fierce
A House-Senate conference committee is expected in the near future to
begin work to resolve the differences between the House bill and one
passed by the Senate. The Senate bill does not contain the mining
provisions, but it does include an equally contentious measure, rejected
by the House, that would open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to
Critics fear the mining law changes could open the door to any type of
locally approved development on millions of acres of public land —
including national forests and national parks. Records show California's
national parks have more mining claims than any others in the U.S.
Six Western governors, all Democrats, signed a letter Thursday opposing
the changes, calling them "ill-conceived" with "sinister intent."
"Functionally, 6 million acres of public land could be on the selling
block … including lands within our wilderness and national parks system,"
wrote the governors of Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico, Arizona, Oregon and
Washington. "With the potential for new … claims, untold other millions of
acres could be up for sale."
The governors said the sale of lands would yield a "paltry" $32 million
annually, while sacrificing $2 billion worth of royalties.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office is assessing the mining claims
legislation, but spokesman Darel Ng said Friday, "He has not yet taken a
Supported by the mining industry, the bill is being championed by Reps.
Richard Pombo (R-Tracy), Resources Committee chair, and Jim Gibbons, a
Nevada Republican and Resources Committee member who wrote the
The two congressmen maintain it is a long overdue reform of an 1872 mining
law that will help ease the nation's deficit and bolster rural economies.
They say fears of massive development are unfounded, particularly in
national parks and other protected areas.
"This is not some land sale or giveaway," said Pombo spokesman Brian
Kennedy. "This legislation allows there to be jobs and economic
sustainability after the mine closes."
But others worry that language in the bill could negate regulatory
oversight of mining on public lands, and lead to the sale of surface lands
"We're trying to decipher this thing. It's amazing how some of it is
written," said Death Valley National Park Supt. J.T. Reynolds.
According to the park's mining engineer, Mel Essington, "They could put in
a bingo parlor, gambling casinos, a McDonald's….
"A portion of the park extends into Nevada," Essington added. "They could
have a legal right to a brothel out there."
Several hundred miles north in Sierra County, where there are about 1,500
mining claims and only 3,500 residents, county planning chief Tim Beals
said privatization of claims would create "horrendous conflicts" between
the new landowners and fishermen, hunters, hikers and snowmobilers, as
well as a rush to build along the rivers. "It would be chaos."
If approved by the Senate, the law would lift an 11-year-old moratorium on
the patenting, or sale, of federal lands to claim holders. Purchase
prices, now $2.50 to $5 an acre, would be raised to $1,000 an acre or fair
market value, whichever is greater. Claim holders could also stake and buy
Mining industry officials said the ability to patent, or buy, mining
claims would help ensure a domestic supply of minerals and provide
incentive to make new uses of property containing shuttered mines.
Luke Popovich, vice president of the National Mining Assn., said critics
have grossly exaggerated the law's potential effects. "If you put in some
common-sense screens … you come up with a total acreage that is seriously
possible for privatization of about 360,000" across the U.S, he said.
The bulk of active mining claims on federal land in California are in the
Mojave Desert and the Sierra Nevada foothills. The lands are rich in
mining history, attractive for development and used by millions of people
for camping and other recreation.
The Mojave Preserve, established in 1994, is studded with 432 active
claims, meaning they pay fees each year and have done exploratory work.
The existing federal Mining in the Parks Act has tough restrictions that
make it difficult to actually mine, and that effectively ban other
The land is largely devoid of humans, except for occasional hikers or
hunters who share the undulating desert valleys and five mountain ranges
with jackrabbits, tortoises, coyotes and small bands of bighorn sheep.
"I call it the big openness," said acting park chief Whalon. "I don't want
to lose any ground."
What concerns him most is how the legislation could affect adjacent public
land just across the increasingly busy Interstate 15 from the northern
boundary of the preserve.
Administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, that land has less
protection than the preserve, Whalon said. He fears if it is sold to
private owners as a result of the new bill, it could be very profitable to
put commercial strips next to the highway, exposing the preserve to light,
noise and pollution.
Three hours away in Death Valley, tourists interviewed last week were
mostly aghast at the possibility of new mining and development in the
"It would be crummy," said Laury Huckling, 35, of Ontario, Canada,
marveling at the 35-million-year-old lava beds off Zabriskie Point. "This
should be protected forever."
But Don Twiggs, a visitor from Ludlow, Vt., disagreed. "For 360 degrees I
see nothing but a lot of rock," said Twiggs, a retired plumbing
contractor. "I'm sure you could get some use out of some of it, and still
have plenty left over."
Supporters of the bill say buying lands simply for development would
remain illegal, and that years of costly mining work would have to be done
before the land could be privatized.
"This is not a return to the Old West land rush," said Gerald Hillier,
former head of the BLM's California desert office, now a consultant to
county officials in four Southwestern states. "People are not going to be
able to go out and stake a claim, kick the cattle off, and say 'this is
He said market forces would also keep most national forest and BLM land
from being developed, because there is still so much available private
land closer to towns.
Last week in Sierra County, on snowy ground outside his DigMore Mine,
David O'Donnell put on his hardhat and adjusted his headlamp with fingers
gnarled from old injuries. A county road worker, he mines his claims
evenings and weekends. "If I was not married," said the father of two
grown sons, "I would be up here 24-7."
On one level, the legislation appeals to O'Donnell, who mines with a heavy
hammer, dynamite and an ore cart inherited from his father. He figures he
could acquire his 160-acre claim and cut some timber for shoring up his
mine. And he could sell off an interest to raise capital for equipment and
But he is concerned about development. "I think mining property was not
designed for a housing tract," he said. "If people move in, they will
think the miners are making too much noise. They would complain about
drills and rock crushers … and too much dust."
Mike Miller, who owns the Original Sixteen to One Mine in the nearby
hamlet of Allegheny — one of the county's few commercial mining operations
— said the new law would make it too easy to purchase mining claims, after
as little as $7,500 in mineral development work.
"That is not right," he said.
Unlike some other foothill counties that lost mining and logging jobs,
Sierra County is hardly teeming with new development. Three-quarters of
the county is public land, and most of the rest has been developed or is
too steep and rugged.
Officials said the proposed law could open up vast forests in the county
to housing and other private uses, increasing the tax base. They said they
welcome development near existing towns but are concerned that development
deep in national forests could harm recreational tourism and create new
costs for snow removal, ambulance services and police and fire protection.
Adam Harper, manager of the California Mining Assn., said those fears are
unwarranted. "The locals have the ultimate say on what can go on a piece
On a recent afternoon, Sierra County Sheriff Lee Adams III stood on a
snowy outcropping, looking out over some of the mining claims that extend
40 miles along a stretch of the Yuba River favored by fishermen and
"These are some of the most scenic areas of Tahoe National Forest," said
Adams, speaking as a longtime county resident. "Say I pay $10,000 for a
claim and turn around and sell it to a developer for $200,000. I do not
think that is a benefit to the public."