GOP senators wary of provision on federal land sales

Some Senate Republicans from the West are unhappy with a provision in House-approved budget reconciliation language that would overturn a 1994 ban and potentially allow the sale of millions of acres of public lands, setting up a potential intra-party showdown during conference talks next month.

The House language would amend the 1872 Mining Act to allow the federal government to sell land for mining without receiving royalties from what is mined. Some GOP senators want to ensure national parks and other federal land are protected from development under the new language.

"There are certain things that would trigger some opposition," said a spokesman for Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo. He added that those questioning the House language "want to stay away from the idea that this is some cheap way to get land."

Others are concerned that hunting and fishing might be curbed and uncontrollable development would result from the eased regulations. "I wouldn't say it has the green light yet," said a spokesman for Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont.

In an attempt to assuage some of the concerns, House Resources Chairman Pombo said in a letter last week to Rep. Dennis Rehberg, R-Mont., that he would try to attach language in conference "clearly stating that access to hunting and fishing operations will be protected as under current law."

Senate Democrats are also fighting the language. Senate Energy and Natural Resources ranking member Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said in a statement that the House provision "would result in a deeply troubling outcome -- a fire sale of valuable federal lands, adverse impacts on national parks, forests and other public lands, and new, ambiguous legal standards and requirements that will have far-reaching negative consequences."

While 5.7 million acres of land have mining claims on them, a spokesman for Pombo says the language restricts sales to about 360,000 acres where claims have "a plan of operation or pending plans of operation." Of those acres, CBO has determined that about 140,000 were likely to be purchased, resulting in $158 million in federal revenue over five years and $326 million over 10 years. The language calls for each acre to be sold for $1,000 or "fair market value," whichever is higher.

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