In an ominous new development, Congress may soon authorize private "patents" of public land, a wildly outdated and abused provision of an 1872 mining law. The patents are functionally equivalent to fee-simple purchases of the land, which raises the distinct possibility that private individuals and corporations could stake mining claims—and then buy the land—in national forests, wilderness areas, and even national parks.
Mining, as it is currently practiced, is so ecologically disastrous that there are too many examples of environmental degradation to mention here. But the new Congressional legislation would actually worsen matters. Not only would it make it easy for mining corporations to snatch up public land at bargain-basement prices—and never pay royalties on their profits—but there’s nothing preventing the buyer from dropping plans to mine and then re-selling the land as real estate. If mining doesn’t pencil out, there’s always the possibility of ski areas, amusement parks, condos…
At risk are roughly 20 million acres of public lands. Already, nearly 900 patents have been staked inside national parks and that number is almost certain to rise under the new legislation. It’s hard to imagine a worse deal for the American public, not to mention our ever more fragile natural heritage that public lands safeguard.
UPDATE 11/14/05: Excellent coverage of this issue in today’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer.