Federal sale may include treaty lands

WASHINGTON -- A House Resources Committee budget reconciliation package
designed to raise money to ease the national deficit would, according to
critics, open up the largest land sale in this country's history.

The original House version of the proposed bill contained provisions that
opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling, but after markup
ANWR was removed. Drilling in ANWR is currently in the Senate version.

At risk are federal lands in the entire western United States -- the
homeland of many tribes, including the Western Shoshone.

The lands, controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, could be put up for
sale should the package be approved. An amendment to the reconciliation
package, introduced by Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., would have the effect of
opening the land to development by many companies, opponents argue. The
proposal would require the land be claimed for mining or be contiguous to a
mining claim.

The Western Shoshone have been fighting land issues for decades, and
recently finished a contentious battle with Congress over a settlement.

According to committee spokesman Matt Streit, the bill and amendment is
intended to allow companies to purchase land and keep the infrastructure in
place after mining operations have been exhausted.

"It is aimed at continued economic sustainability in the West. Rural
communities are dependent on resources, but when the mining resources are
depleted the company takes all of the infrastructure off the land and the
community has no economic engine," Streit said.

He said some mining interests have slivers of land within the middle of
their claim and the BLM owns the mineral rights to that small sliver. That
would be the land the proponents expect will be purchased.

"Sustainable economic development could include condominium construction,
ski resorts, gaming casinos, you name it, flying in the face of America's
commitment to protect these lands," said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va. and
ranking committee member.

"If enacted, this proposal would result in a blazing fire sale of federal
lands to domestic and international corporate interests. This is the worst
kind of sham reform of the mining law ever to be promoted in my tenure in
Congress," Rahall said.

In the past, buyers had to prove they had a legitimate plan to mine the
land. The new legislation removes that requirement; in fact, it lifts a
mining patent claim moratorium. The Mining Act of 1872, which regulates
hard-rock mining, required that minerals must be found before the claim
could be established for $2.50 or $5 per acre.

The proposed bill would allow the land to be sold based on the surface land
value ... of the value of minerals within the land.

Rahall has asked the Rules Committee to remove the portion of the bill that
would lift the moratorium on hard-rock mining; however, the wording
currently remains.

The federal government considers 90 percent of Western Shoshone lands as
federal land. The Western Shoshone have successfully worked to defeat past
attempts to privatize their homelands, and land that could be sold lies
within the boundaries of the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley, established for
the Western Shoshone.

"For the Western Shoshone people, this struggle is not just one of who owns
the land, but one of deep cultural and spiritual significance. As a people
we are deeply rooted to the lands where we were placed by the Father God
(Ah-Peh) and have a responsibility to safeguard those lands," the Western
Shoshone said in a prepared statement.

More tribes than the Western Shoshone need to be concerned: the entire
western half of the United States could be affected. Millions of acres of
land controlled by the federal government lie within the boundaries of
aboriginal homelands of most Western tribes, or are part of land claims or
are found just adjacent to reservations.

Opponents to the bill claim that 270 million acres are involved in this
potential sale. Streit argued that only 360,000 acres would be involved and
"in reality, a third of that."

He said that according to the Congressional Budget Office, the potential
sale of land would bring in $250 million, and that any figures the
opponents come up with are "inflated."

Kristen Bossi, Rahall's press secretary, said the Resources Committee was
ordered to come up with a $2.4 billion economic package and that drilling
in ANWR will make that possible. "There is a question of why [western lands need to be sold]."

Treaty concerns, such as off-reservation hunting, fishing and gathering,
will be affected. Access to sacred sites may be limited or denied by
private owners. Supporters of American Indian treaties, such as the
Indigenous Environmental Network, claim that approval of this budget
package could be "the final blow to indigenous nations and communities
attempting to re-establish title or use of what is rightfully theirs."

For years, the Lakota of South Dakota have not accepted a land settlement
from the federal government for the taking of the Black Hills. The Lakota
continue to request the return of the sacred Black Hills. Open-pit gold and
feldspar mines pock the landscape of the Black Hills and the protectors
worry the land will also be up for sale for other development. Many mining
claims have been taken out in the Black Hills.

"Would Rep. Pombo consider that indigenous sovereign nations be given first
right of refusal before ever selling federally held public lands to
corporate interests? The Black Hills are today known to be indigenous
homelands, and members of the Bear Butte International Alliance certainly
do not favor Congress offering for sale to mining interests our sacred
landscapes," said Nancy Kile, secretary of the Defenders of the Black Hills
and the Bear Butte International Alliance.

John Leshy, former solicitor in the Department of Interior under the
Clinton administration, told the Denver Post that millions of mining claims
were filed over the past two centuries and it wouldn't be difficult for a
company to find a claim. He said, "It's not about mining; it's about real

But Streit said that was not the case at all. He said that companies would
have to abide by current mining rules.

"It is our spiritual teaching that the Earth is our mother and to try to
remove us from our lands or displace us by privatization efforts would be
to commit spiritual genocide on our people," stated a Western Shoshone
Defense Project written statement.