CONGRESSIONAL investigators report ``costly, overlapping, and often contradictory'' taxpayer subsidies to ranchers, miners, loggers, farmers, hydropower users, and recreation businesses across the West.

So complicated is the pattern of overlapping price supports, tax breaks, low-cost loans, and exemptions from environmental laws that no one knows for sure how much they amount to, reports the House natural resources subcommittee on oversight and investigations.

But the sum of subsidies developed over more than a century is at least in the billions of dollars, according to a report issued today, and ``urgent overhaul is needed before these same policies persist into the next century as well, resulting not only in degradation of resources, but also in multibillion dollar losses for the taxpayer.''

The findings echo complaints brought in recent years by the General Accounting Office, the Interior Department inspector general, the White House Office of Management and Budget, Vice President Al Gore's ``National Performance Review,'' the National Taxpayers Union, environmental groups, and other critics.

MANY of these subsidies had worthwhile purposes and helped settle the West,'' says Rep. George Miller (D) of California.

He chairs the House Natural Resources Committee. ``But while the West has long since been settled, the subsidies remain, even when their goals have long been accomplished.''

Some examples:

* The 1872 Mining Law permits companies to obtain title to federal land for a few dollars an acre then reap large profits without paying royalties. In May, a court forced Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to sell 1,949 acres in Nevada to a Canadian-owned company for $9,765. While the owners also had to pay another private party $62 million for the mining claims and other costs, it expects to find $10 billion in royalty-free gold.

* According to the Energy Department, subsidies for hydropower generated by federally built dams in the Columbia River Basin amounted to more than $1.2 billion in 1990.

* More than half of all national forests (65 out of 122) lost money on timber sales in 1990. The number of money-losing forests with below-cost timber sales in 1992 rose to 82. The Tongass National Forest in Alaska alone averaged annual loses of $50.5 million through the 1980s.

* Between 1985 and 1992 Uncle Sam lost $1.18 billion from setting grazing fees on federal land below market value.

* AO figures on private businesses operating at national parks show the federal government receives just 2 percent of lucrative concession revenues totaling more than $1 billion a year.

Congressman Miller says that some subsidies on Western federal lands can contribute to community stability, help provide jobs, and promote better use of resources. ``But we in Congress continually hear that government ought to be run like a business,'' he says. ``That's what we ought to be doing with our programs of natural resource subsidies - examining them with a critical eye and eliminating the ones that no longer make sense.''

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