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Kelpie Wilson: Pombo's Poison Pills

Pombo's Poison Pills

By Kelpie Wilson
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Monday 14 November 2005

Arctic natives and caribou got a reprieve last week when some House Republicans refused to go along with adding Arctic Refuge oil drilling to the budget reconciliation bill. Conservationists are jubilant, though the feeling is tempered somewhat by knowing that Arctic drilling may be re-inserted when the final bill is worked out with the Senate.

Still, this is a victory and a sign that the hard-core drill and spill crowd is not polling well these days. Republicans who want to save their political hides will continue to reject any budget bill that opens the Arctic Refuge to oil drilling. Fear of political backlash prompted the Republican leadership to also drop a provision ending the moratorium on off-shore oil drilling.

But removal of the Arctic Refuge and offshore drilling provisions should not clear the House budget bill for passage. Outrageous environmental poison pills remain. They are mostly the work of the Chair of the House Resources Committee, Mr. Richard Pombo, a real estate developer from Tracy, California.

Pombo is a Republican in the DeLay mold. Oil and gas interests keep his campaign cash barrel topped up; he pays his relatives inflated salaries from those funds; he is deeply involved in the gambling-industry / Indian-casino money machine; he took thousands of dollars from DeLay's buddy, indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

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Pombo will be a busy man this week as the Republican leadership tries to rescue its budget bill. Late last week, he met with a group of hard-liners and let House Leader Blunt know that this group would withhold votes from any budget bill that did not include a significant oil measure like opening the Arctic Refuge or the coasts to drilling. "Picking up four or five votes by pulling [arctic drilling] doesn't make up for the 25 or 30 votes you're going to lose," Pombo said, and he asked that Blunt and House Speaker Dennis Hastert promise him that "some American energy production" will be included in the final version approved by the House and Senate.

Pombo may work out a deal with the balking Republicans, perhaps some modified form of his off-shore oil proposal. That could grease the votes needed to pass the bill over Democratic objections.

But there is a lot more at stake for the environment than the oil drilling deals. Buried in the bowels of the bill is a stunning Pombo poison pill - one of the biggest land grabs in history.

Disguised as a modification to mining law, it would allow developers to purchase any public land with minerals on it for their own private use. According to the Environmental Working Group, if passed it would immediately put 5.7 million acres of public lands with existing mining claims up for sale, including more than 2 million acres inside or adjacent to national parks, wilderness areas, wildlife refuges and other environmental and cultural treasures.

Over time, Pombo's giveaway could transfer as many as 350 million acres of public lands to private ownership.

Last month, Pombo floated a proposal to sell off 23 percent of the national park system, including, ironically, a Teddy Roosevelt memorial, in order to balance the deficit. He passed it off as an attention-getting joke, but this latest proposal is deadly serious.

Here is just one example of what it would mean on the ground:

There is a place in my neck of the woods that would rank high on anyone's list of the most beautiful places in the world. That place is a 26,000-acre roadless watershed in the Siskiyou National Forest called Rough & Ready Creek. It was named by the mining prospectors who came and killed or drove out most of the native people back in the 1800s.

No one knows what the natives called the creek, but they might have called it something like "turquoise waters of many flowers." It's an absolutely unique place. The creek cuts though an uplift of ancient seafloor composed of rare peridotite redrock. The water is crystal clear and the floral diversity is stunning. Unfortunately, those rare rocks also contain small quantities of nickel and other metals that have attracted the interest of miners.

The Nicore mining company has claimed more than five thousand acres of this watershed under the 1872 Mining Law. Congress passed that 1872 law to encourage settlers to move out west and develop the land, and it includes a patenting provision that even today allows miners to buy public land for what it was worth back then, no more than $5.00 an acre. Once they own the land, they can do anything they like with it - build houses, shopping malls, industrial facilities or pricey resorts.

Public outcry against this giveaway of the people's land finally led the Senate to place a moratorium on the patenting provision of the law 11 years ago. But Nicore applied for its patent sometime before that, and the application was grandfathered in. The friends and neighbors of Rough & Ready Creek have fought to have it denied.

Under the 1872 law, a miner must show that an economically viable quantity of mineral resource exists in the land before he can purchase it. Friends and neighbors of Rough & Ready Creek have successfully shown that the low-grade nickel ore there is not economically significant.

But under Pombo's new mining law, there is no such requirement, and Nicore would be eligible to purchase the mining claims the minute the law passes. Friends and neighbors and the public at large would be shut out of Rough & Ready Creek forever, and the crystal clear waters enjoyed by all downstream would be at risk.

Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., said it well: "If somebody went to Fort Knox and took gold out, they'd be in jail for the rest of their lives. But in national forests, people can take gold (under the bill) and be considered friends of the Republican Party."

The whole reason for the budget reconciliation bill is to enact measures that will help balance the budget. Pombo's land giveaway is like selling the family heirlooms cut-rate at a pawn shop to pay the rent. But really it is worse than that, because the money will only be used to fund a $70 billion tax cut for the rich.

The only appropriate response is to regurgitate this poison pill all over their slick designer shoes.


Kelpie Wilson is the t r u t h o u t environment editor. A veteran forest protection activist and mechanical engineer, she writes from her solar-powered cabin in the Siskiyou Mountains of southwest Oregon. Her first novel, Primal Tears, is forthcoming from North Atlantic Books in Fall 2005.

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