Since U.S. Rep. James Gibbons of Nevada got a change in the Mining Law of 1872 through the House of Representatives by slipping it into a budget bill, it’s been all downhill. Senate consideration of the measure has been contentious and a wave of opposition materialized in the West. Finally, Gibbons threw in the towel and withdrew the amendment.

The measure could, according to its critics, allow the use of mining law for acquisition of large sections of public land for non-mining purposes. They say it could permit the construction of housing developments and ski resorts in national forests and other currently protected sites. Gibbons said this could only happen if the prospective owners jump through all the laborious hoops that mining companies must go through, including proving that there are minerals on the land. He also said his measure was important to national security because it lessened reliance on foreign minerals.

Since our last report on the subject (“What’s mine,” Dec. 8), the measure drew additional Western opposition from Sen. Conrad Burns and Rep. Denny Rehberg, both Montana Republicans; eight Western Democratic senators in a letter to senate leaders; Sen. Pete Domenici and Rep. Heather Wilson, both New Mexico Republicans; U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard of Colorado, a Republican; New Mexico Game and Fish Director Bruce Thompson; 19 natural resource law professors, in a letter to Congress; the Colorado Mountain Club and four other outdoors groups in that state; U.S. Sen. Craig Thomas, a Wyoming Republican; Trout Unlimited chapters in several states; and the Oregonian, Albuquerque Tribune, and Eugene (Oregon) Register Guard, in editorials.

Domenici’s opposition was particularly significant, because he chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The Gibbons amendment was endorsed by Rep. Don Young of Alaska, U.S. Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, and U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce of New Mexico. The Bush administration was “somewhat neutral,” according to Sen. Craig.

Initially, Gibbons tried to save the amendment by agreeing to a rewrite of it, but opponents—including Sen. Thomas—say any change should be the subject of independent legislation and full blown hearings. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer made the point in colorful fashion when he told New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, “If a skunk comes into your house, you can throw it into the shower, and he’s still going to smell like skunk. You’re not going to get out the smell of this one with just a shower and a little soap.”

So finally, Gibbons agreed to torpedo the amendment. He said his reason was a problem with Senate procedures, not the wave of opposition he faced. He singled Sen. Craig out for praise.

“While I am disappointed that procedural rules in the Senate will prevent us from moving forward with these provisions in the budget reconciliation process, I remain committed to modernizing the mining law to meet our 21st century needs. … Senator Craig has been a strong ally in efforts to modernize the mining law and an ardent supporter of responsible mining in this country.”

Republican leaders closed ranks around Gibbons, but some of them warned against another surreptitious maneuver like amending a budget bill to change mining law.

“It is imperative that we seek input from the public and work in cooperation with all stakeholders, including mining companies, other public-land users, preservationists and local governments and communities,” said GOP Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado.

Environmental groups warned that any reform of the Mining Law of 1872 should not follow the lines of Gibbons’ effort.

“We don’t need privatization to spur the mining industry,” Western Mining Action Project director Roger Flynn told the Denver Post. “They’re making enough money as it is.”

Some industry executives regretted changes in the law that would have benefited them—including allowing them to gain ownership of public land instead of just the mining rights—won’t become a reality. But even some of them were relatively indifferent to the failure of the Gibbons amendment. “We’re not going to lose a lot of sleep over the fact that (the provision) is not in there,” New Mexico Mining Association director Mike Bowen told the New Mexico Business Weekly.

Some questioned Gibbons’ motive in sponsoring the amendment. Eric Mack at noted, “[N]one of the companies that would benefit the most from the legislation are based in Nevada. In fact, most of them are foreign companies. … It is worth noting that three mining companies that have staked almost a combined 600,000 acres worth of mining claims on public lands contributed over $60,000 to Gibbons’ political campaigns over the last decade. The bulk of those donations came from Denver-based Newmont Mining, which has over 347,000 acres worth of public claims, more than any other single claim-holder.”

Mack also contended that the battle over the Gibbons amendment argues against red state/blue state simplicity about the West because it revealed the possibility of working relationships between conservatives and liberals, business and environmentalists.

“Opposition to the measure rushed like an avalanche down both sides of the continental divide, bridging a highly polarized national political divide and rendering the solid red block that covered the Rocky Mountain states on electoral maps a year ago completely irrelevant.”

Others noted that Gibbons has said he will try again and urged vigilance.

“His task, we hope, will become tougher now that other members of Congress as well as public lands users are aware that Gibbons is endangering some of the country’s most precious landholdings,” said the Arizona Star in an editorial.

It was a sentiment echoed by some activists who suspected that the little-known Gibbons was acting as a cat’s paw for House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo. They said future efforts could be subtler and more professional—and harder to stop.

Virtually all parties said the Internet had played an important role in blowing the cover of Gibbons’ effort to enact the change by quietly inserting it into an unrelated bill.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...