- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 16, 2005

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. (AP) — The ruddy slopes of 12,392-foot Mount Emmons loom over this town, drawing hikers, backcountry skiers and snowshoers. But to residents such as Jim Starr, they also stand for what is wrong with the nation’s antiquated mining laws.

Those laws allowed the Bush administration to sell 155 acres of public land on the “Red Lady” to a mining company for less than $900. The land has deposits of molybdenum, a gray metal used to make steel, alloys and lubricants.

“It’s a huge threat. If anyone did put a mine in there, it’s hard to imagine that it would not destroy this area,” said Mr. Starr, a lawyer and Democratic chairman of Gunnison County’s board of commissioners.

The sale was made possible by an 1872 mining law that lets the government sell, for just $2.50 an acre or $5 an acre, public lands that contain minerals. This land sale, known as a patent, gives companies absolute title to the property.

Since October 1994, Congress has voted each year to renew a temporary ban that prevents companies from submitting new patent applications to buy more government land at rock-bottom prices.

That left the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) with 405 applications it had received before October 1994. Those applications came from companies looking to buy land managed by the BLM and the Forest Service.

John Leshy, who approved 68 of those patents as the Interior Department’s top attorney during the Clinton administration, said the law requires the government to give away land needlessly.

“The mining law was a cover for getting the land for non-mining purposes like hunting, fishing, brothels or a saloon. I don’t think people need incentives to settle the West any longer,” said Mr. Leshy, a University of California law professor and author of “The Mining Law.”

The Bush administration and Congress pushed to approve the remaining applications — about 200 — that were unresolved when President Bush took office. Under the Bush administration, 139 were approved and 50 remain to be considered.

The BLM’s deputy director, Jim Hughes, said the patents convey property rights, but not a free pass to disregard environmental laws. He said private investment, mostly in the rural West, provides good jobs, but acknowledged that some oppose mining because of legitimate aesthetic values.

“As always, the BLM is sort of caught between the two, and we have to make decisions on those competing interests,” he said. “At the end of the day, we are told to follow the law. It’s not an easy choice.”

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