The Pombo Public Lands Giveaway: Plan to Sell Public Lands to the Highest Bidder

  • In fall 2005, Representative Richard Pombo (R-CA) mounted a crusade against federal stewardship of public lands. With Rep. Jim Gibbons, (R-NV) the congressman slipped a provision into a budget bill to force the sale of millions of acres of public land. Their proposal, deceptively titled “Miscellaneous Amendments Related to Mining”, was part of a House of Representative’s “Budget Reconciliation” package, drafted to resolve differences between the proposed House budget and Senate version. If it had passed, the Pombo bill would have irrevocably altered the law to make it easy for private parties to buy and develop federal land, at rock bottom bargains.

    This bill represented one of the biggest land scams ever, enabling anyone to claim ownership of public land for as little as $1,000 an acre. Not only would taxpayers have lost the use of their land, they would have subsidized the purchase! Since 1872, due to the antiquated Mining Act, mining interests could claim ownership of public land for the purpose of extracting minerals at little cost. Pombo’s bill would have ended an 11-year-old moratorium on patenting claims and done away with current provisions that require proof that there are valuable minerals on the land, making it even easier to claim land - with no intention to mine.

    Under the bill's language, anyone could acquire public land and use it for "sustainable economic development" such as, the construction of condominiums, ski resorts or casinos. Although Pombo claimed he was motivated by fiscal responsibility and a desire to reduce the federal deficit with proceeds from the sale of public lands, his legislation would have done little to solve the deficit problem. For example, if Congress simply imposed a modest mining royalty, as it does on oil and gas operations, this revenue would go much further than a giveaway of federally managed, public lands.

    Representative Pombo's s plan met with much resistance in the West, when five western governors, led by Wyoming's Dave Freudenthal, weighed in against Pombo's attempted public-lands giveaway rider tucked into the pending House version of the Budget Bill. Freudenthal was joined by Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, and Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire:

    Wyoming's two Republican senators joined the dissent, with Senator Craig Thomas stating, "I won't stand by and let a Band-Aid fix to the Mining Act become a chronic injury to land use in our state.”

    Quoted from: “The Mining News - News on Mining Impacts from Communities and Activists Worldwide” 12/01/05

    The House version of the bill contained the public land grab provision, and passed. The U.S. Senate version of the budget bill did not include the Pombo public land grab, and so the bill found its way to conference committee to reconcile differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill. With opposition from members of the conference committee including Montana Senator Max Baucus, Gibbons (R-NV) withdrew the land grab provision before the bill was reported out of conference committee. Fortunately, the Pombo bill was voted down this time around.

    Rep. Dennis Rehberg voted for the House bill containing the Pombo Public Land Grab, but later waivered and claimed he would work to reform the provision to maintain public access to the public lands sold. The provision did not return to the House for a second voteAlthough the Senate did not vote on this bill, Senator Max Baucus took the lead in conference committee to remove the land grab provision from the conference report, and called the measure “an unprecedented attack on public lands in Montana” (Helena Independent Record, 11/19/2005).

    Senator Conrad Burns waffled in the press about his position on the sale of public lands. In reference to the Pombo provision, Burns’ spokesperson, J.P. Pendleton told the Butte Montana Standard (11/25/2005) the Senator was “in general supportive of the sale of certain federal lands that would help rural economies.”

    Taking Action: Please contact Senator Max Baucus and thank him for helping defeat the Pombo public land grab. And contact Rep. Rehberg and ask him why he voted to support the Pombo bill and the giveaway of our public lands. Ask Senator Burns to explain his position on this issue.

    For information, contact the following organizations working on this issue: