New Twists in Debate Over Public Land

'Sagebrush rebellion' is stoked by a senator's proposal to sell more federal land each year.

Out along Rough and Ready Creek in the Illinois Valley of southwest Oregon, Walt Freeman hopes to strike it rich on his mining claims. He figures the nickel, chromium, and iron ore there are more than worth the cost of bulldozing 15 miles of roads into the rugged terrain.

But there's just one catch: His claims are on land managed by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), federal agencies that oversee millions of acres across the American West. The area includes rare plant species, and conservationists say the creek would be polluted and eroded by mining.

Still, under the federal law governing hard-rock mining, Mr. Freeman's claims can only be modified - not dismissed. Once approved, the land, in effect, becomes his.

This is just one small chapter in a long history of political struggle over who owns federal lands. Should it be those who work the land? The miners, ranchers, and loggers in the small communities dependent on natural-resource production, most of whom are rural Westerners? Or do those vast expanses of forest and desert belong to all Americans, most of whom are coastal urbanites?

At various times in recent decades, the debate has been cast as a "sagebrush rebellion" - a take-sides version of Woody Guthrie's "This land is your land, this land is my land."

And this latest episode features a few new twists: an attack on the Forest Service chief (who wants to emphasize conservation over logging), yet another try at reforming the 126-year-old hard-rock mining law that still lets companies take title to mineral-rich land for what critics say are ridiculously small sums, and a proposal to sell off millions of acres of federal land.

Conservative Western lawmakers bristle at the idea of greater environmental protections for public lands - lands that are traditionally devoted to the extracting of resources by private interests. So when Forest Service chief Michael Dombeck recently announced a moratorium on road-building in national forests, Sens. Frank Murkowski of Alaska and Larry Craig of Idaho, as well as Reps. Don Young of Alaska and Helen Chenoweth of Idaho (all Republicans) threatened to severely cut the agency's budget.

"We'll keep cutting their budgets back until they squeal," Mr. Young said. The implication being that - one way or another - such pressure would preserve traditional land policies over environmental protection.

The Westerner's dream

The idea of going even further - turning over federal lands to Western states and local communities - has long been a dream of many sagebrush rebels covetously eying the 400-plus million acres making up the Forest Service and BLM domain.

As governor of California in the 1960s and '70s, Ronald Reagan teamed up with Nevada's then-Gov. Paul Laxalt to tilt lances at federal land managers reporting to political appointees in Washington. In the '80s, former Interior Secretary James Watt tried unsuccessfully to sell Western federal lands to raise money for the US Treasury. More recently, Rep. James Hansen (R) of Utah pushed a bill that would have given states the right to claim all BLM land within their boundaries.

Now, Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico has proposed that $350 million worth of BLM land be sold during the next five years. The revenues would be used to cover the costs of habitat-conservation plans and other financial incentives for private landowners whose land is home to endangered species.

The BLM already trades small unwanted parcels and sells about $2.5 million (some 5,000 acres) in public land each year. Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, for example, wants to take title to 400 acres of federal land for a community center and fire station.

Bigger land sales

The Domenici proposal would greatly increase that annual turnover of federal lands, to the delight of traditional-resource users and developers. One 20,000-acre BLM parcel near Las Vegas already is the subject of legislation pushed by the Nevada delegation as a source of revenues for state environmental, public works, and education programs.

But the Domenici measure threatens another important piece of legislation: a compromise bill to reauthorize the Endangered Species Act. Critics say it forever removes federal protection from public lands in exchange for just a short-term solution to the challenge of preventing plant and animal extinction.

"The problem is that you are taking a permanent asset and selling it off to provide temporary protection [for endangered species] on private land," says Fran Hunt, who directs the Wilderness Society's BLM lands program.

Sen. Richard Bryan (D) of Nevada calls it a "classic example of selling a capital asset to pay for operation and maintenance costs."

Supporters respond that the Domenici proposal is simply a logical and economically efficient way to meet a legitimate environmental goal.

Whether or not it succeeds, it is unlikely to be the last skirmish in the sagebrush rebellion.

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