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Turning Back the Clock

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About 20 years ago, outdoor writer Ted Trueblood wrote an article titled "They're Fixin to Steal Your Public Lands." Well, they are at it again, and in the process turning back the clock on public land policy. Representative Pombo of California successfully included what he calls reforms to the 1872 Mining Law Act. This was done by including the amendments to the Budget Deficit Reconciliation Bill.

The reforms would permit the immediate selling of existing mining claims at $1,000 or the "surface" fair market value. Minerals below the surface are included in the sale of these public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. Once these claims are sold, then the remaining public lands in Idaho and elsewhere would be open to mineral entry with little or no evidence of the land containing mineral resources. The very looseness of the legislative language makes the reforms ripe for abuse. Public land history has many examples of past abuses of public land laws, especially those who disposed of public lands.

What is at stake in Idaho are the 260,000 acres of existing mining claims that could be sold to the holders of the mining claims. This is the first priority of the legislation. Also, holders of these mining claims could also purchase adjacent blocks of public lands. This is the real murky part. Once existing claims are sold, an additional 32 million acres of public lands in Idaho would be subject to new mining claims. The claimant would not be required to conclusively establish the presence of minerals. These are the public lands on which we hunt, fish, camp, hike and explore with motorized recreational vehicles. Once these lands are patented (deeded to a private person, company or corporation), the owner is under no obligation to grant public access and can use the land in any manner they wish. So, for all practical purposes, this land is lost from the public estate and access is at the discretion of the landowner.

Idaho is fortunate to have millions of acres of wildlife habitat and a diverse population of wildlife. Some of these populations are struggling for survival, while others need help. Some areas have been set aside for special management, such as Areas of Critical Environmental Concern. This has been done to conserve and protect California Desert Big Horn Sheep and other wildlife species. These special areas could be lost forever. There is also a designation to provide special management for natural and research efforts. These too could be lost.

The public lands in Idaho alone provide important seasonal habitat for species such as sage grouse, mule deer, elk, antelope and wild sheep. These lands are equally vulnerable under the mining law reforms proposed in the Budget Deficit Reconciliation Bill. It is simple; the wildlife we enjoy and pursue would take a tremendous hit in population and available habitat.

A diverse public recreates on the public lands in Idaho and throughout the western United States. They fish, hunt, camp, hike, berry picking, rock hounding, and motorized travel, among other things. Those of us who pursue our particular form of recreation, usually several forms, highly treasure our ability to access these lands in our leisure time. The privatization of these lands would greatly limit our recreation and likely eliminate it.

If you do not speak out now, you stand to lose a lot. Contact Senators Craig and Crapo and share your views with them and Representatives Otter and Simpson. You need to do it now! The window of opportunity is short.

This opinion is submitted on behalf of the Idaho Wildlife Federation by the issues coordinator, Russell W. Heughins. Heughins has hunted, fished and camped on public lands for 30 years and has been active in public land issues an equal amount of time. He has served on a BLM advisory council and several BLM committees dealing with public land management. He actively promotes and participates in wildlife habitat projects on public lands. You may contact him at 342-7055 or by email at iwf@idahowildlife.org.