Standing at the foot of billion-year-old Stripe Mountain, acting park chief Larry Whalon gazed up at ancient slopes banded in limestone and copper.
“In 10 years, there could be a big house right here. Lots of houses,” Whalon said.
The entire mountain in the desert preserve west of Las Vegas is covered by federal mining claims, and newly proposed legislation would allow claim holders to purchase this land outright.
Supporters say the mining law changes, part of a spending bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last month, are intended to revive dying rural mining towns. But the possible consequences have provoked fierce disagreement.
A House-Senate conference committee is expected in the near future to begin work to resolve the differences between the House bill and one passed by the Senate. The Senate bill does not contain the mining provisions, but it does include an equally contentious measure, rejected by the House, that would open Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
Critics fear the mining law changes could open the door to any type of locally approved development on millions of acres of public land -- including national forests and national parks. Records show California’s national parks have more mining claims than any others in the U.S.
Six Western governors, all Democrats, signed a letter Thursday opposing the changes, calling them “ill-conceived” with “sinister intent.”
“Functionally, 6 million acres of public land could be on the selling block ... including lands within our wilderness and national parks system,” wrote the governors of Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico, Arizona, Oregon and Washington. “With the potential for new ... claims, untold other millions of acres could be up for sale.”
The governors said the sale of lands would yield a “paltry” $32 million annually, while sacrificing $2 billion worth of royalties.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office is assessing the mining claims legislation, but spokesman Darel Ng said Friday, “He has not yet taken a position.”
Supported by the mining industry, the bill is being championed by Reps. Richard Pombo (R-Tracy), Resources Committee chair, and Jim Gibbons, a Nevada Republican and Resources Committee member who wrote the legislation.
The two congressmen maintain it is a long overdue reform of an 1872 mining law that will help ease the nation’s deficit and bolster rural economies. They say fears of massive development are unfounded, particularly in national parks and other protected areas.
“This is not some land sale or giveaway,” said Pombo spokesman Brian Kennedy. “This legislation allows there to be jobs and economic sustainability after the mine closes.”
But others worry that language in the bill could negate regulatory oversight of mining on public lands, and lead to the sale of surface lands atop claims.
“We’re trying to decipher this thing. It’s amazing how some of it is written,” said Death Valley National Park Supt. J.T. Reynolds.
According to the park’s mining engineer, Mel Essington, “They could put in a bingo parlor, gambling casinos, a McDonald’s....
“A portion of the park extends into Nevada,” Essington added. “They could have a legal right to a brothel out there.”
Several hundred miles north in Sierra County, where there are about 1,500 mining claims and only 3,500 residents, county planning chief Tim Beals said privatization of claims would create “horrendous conflicts” between the new landowners and fishermen, hunters, hikers and snowmobilers, as well as a rush to build along the rivers. “It would be chaos.”
If approved by the Senate, the law would lift an 11-year-old moratorium on the patenting, or sale, of federal lands to claim holders. Purchase prices, now $2.50 to $5 an acre, would be raised to $1,000 an acre or fair market value, whichever is greater. Claim holders could also stake and buy adjoining lands.
Mining industry officials said the ability to patent, or buy, mining claims would help ensure a domestic supply of minerals and provide incentive to make new uses of property containing shuttered mines.
Luke Popovich, vice president of the National Mining Assn., said critics have grossly exaggerated the law’s potential effects. “If you put in some common-sense screens ... you come up with a total acreage that is seriously possible for privatization of about 360,000" across the U.S, he said.
The bulk of active mining claims on federal land in California are in the Mojave Desert and the Sierra Nevada foothills. The lands are rich in mining history, attractive for development and used by millions of people for camping and other recreation.
The Mojave Preserve, established in 1994, is studded with 432 active claims, meaning they pay fees each year and have done exploratory work.
The existing federal Mining in the Parks Act has tough restrictions that make it difficult to actually mine, and that effectively ban other development.
The land is largely devoid of humans, except for occasional hikers or hunters who share the undulating desert valleys and five mountain ranges with jackrabbits, tortoises, coyotes and small bands of bighorn sheep.
“I call it the big openness,” said acting park chief Whalon. “I don’t want to lose any ground.”
What concerns him most is how the legislation could affect adjacent public land just across the increasingly busy Interstate 15 from the northern boundary of the preserve.
Administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, that land has less protection than the preserve, Whalon said. He fears if it is sold to private owners as a result of the new bill, it could be very profitable to put commercial strips next to the highway, exposing the preserve to light, noise and pollution.
Three hours away in Death Valley, tourists interviewed last week were mostly aghast at the possibility of new mining and development in the park.
“It would be crummy,” said Laury Huckling, 35, of Ontario, Canada, marveling at the 35-million-year-old lava beds off Zabriskie Point. “This should be protected forever.”
But Don Twiggs, a visitor from Ludlow, Vt., disagreed. “For 360 degrees I see nothing but a lot of rock,” said Twiggs, a retired plumbing contractor. “I’m sure you could get some use out of some of it, and still have plenty left over.”
Supporters of the bill say buying lands simply for development would remain illegal, and that years of costly mining work would have to be done before the land could be privatized.
“This is not a return to the Old West land rush,” said Gerald Hillier, former head of the BLM’s California desert office, now a consultant to county officials in four Southwestern states. “People are not going to be able to go out and stake a claim, kick the cattle off, and say ‘this is mine.’ ”
He said market forces would also keep most national forest and BLM land from being developed, because there is still so much available private land closer to towns.
Last week in Sierra County, on snowy ground outside his DigMore Mine, David O’Donnell put on his hardhat and adjusted his headlamp with fingers gnarled from old injuries. A county road worker, he mines his claims evenings and weekends. “If I was not married,” said the father of two grown sons, “I would be up here 24-7.”
On one level, the legislation appeals to O’Donnell, who mines with a heavy hammer, dynamite and an ore cart inherited from his father. He figures he could acquire his 160-acre claim and cut some timber for shoring up his mine. And he could sell off an interest to raise capital for equipment and helpers.
But he is concerned about development. “I think mining property was not designed for a housing tract,” he said. “If people move in, they will think the miners are making too much noise. They would complain about drills and rock crushers ... and too much dust.”
Mike Miller, who owns the Original Sixteen to One Mine in the nearby hamlet of Allegheny -- one of the county’s few commercial mining operations -- said the new law would make it too easy to purchase mining claims, after as little as $7,500 in mineral development work.
“That is not right,” he said.
Unlike some other foothill counties that lost mining and logging jobs, Sierra County is hardly teeming with new development. Three-quarters of the county is public land, and most of the rest has been developed or is too steep and rugged.
Officials said the proposed law could open up vast forests in the county to housing and other private uses, increasing the tax base. They said they welcome development near existing towns but are concerned that development deep in national forests could harm recreational tourism and create new costs for snow removal, ambulance services and police and fire protection.
Adam Harper, manager of the California Mining Assn., said those fears are unwarranted. “The locals have the ultimate say on what can go on a piece of property.”
On a recent afternoon, Sierra County Sheriff Lee Adams III stood on a snowy outcropping, looking out over some of the mining claims that extend 40 miles along a stretch of the Yuba River favored by fishermen and whitewater enthusiasts.
“These are some of the most scenic areas of Tahoe National Forest,” said Adams, speaking as a longtime county resident. “Say I pay $10,000 for a claim and turn around and sell it to a developer for $200,000. I do not think that is a benefit to the public.”