WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration is about to complete a policy change that will open millions of acres of national parks and forests to strip mining for coal or force the government to buy the mineral rights from the families and energy companies that own them.
The policy change, in the form of a new Interior Department regulation that is due to become final shortly after the election, would give coal companies authority to mine a mother lode of coal that now lies beneath 40 million acres of parks, preserves and protected lands in 24 states -- roughly 16 percent of the nation's reserves.
The department says the public lands with the richest coal reserves are in eight national forests in Ohio, Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.
Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. says that in order to prevent strip mining in 19 national parks, recreation areas and wildlife refuges that contain coal, the agency will buy the mineral rights from the owners.
Mr. Lujan's aides said the coal reserves beneath these lands were worth just $11 million. But the coal industry and the National Wildlife Federation, an environmental group, said the government would have to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to prevent mining in the national parks.
Last year, in one case alone, the U.S. Claims Court in Washington ordered the Interior Department to pay at least $150 million to a coal company barred from mining a protected area in Wyoming.
"It could be a bonanza for the coal industry," said L. Thomas Galloway, a Washington lawyer who specializes in environmental and strip-mining regulations. "They don't want to mine in the national parks. It would be too much of a public relations disaster. But if they threaten to, the way this rule is set up, the government would have no other choice but to pay them."
The new regulation, which has been in preparation for more than a year, would eliminate protections that Congress approved for these lands when it passed the federal strip-mining law 15 years ago. The law bars mining in national parks and national forests and on millions of acres of private lands, except to those who hold a "valid existing right" to the coal.
But Congress never defined that term, and the Interior Department's efforts to do so have twice been struck down by a U.S. District Court judge in Washington.
As a result, the government adopted an unofficial policy that gave any coal owner who had sought to mine the coal up to the day the law was established, on Aug. 3, 1977, valid existing rights.
But a growing number of other federal judges around the country have since ruled that this definition, never formally adopted, violates the Fifth Amendment, which prohibits the government from taking property without just compensation.
The new regulation, in effect, adopts these more recent court rulings as government policy. "We view this new policy as an affirmation of the Fifth Amendment and a correct interpretation of the surface-mining law," Steven Goldstein, the chief spokesman for the Interior Department, said yesterday.
The issuance of the final rule, expected in November, awaits the completion of an environmental-impact statement by the Interior Department.
The practice of strip mining in these public lands, in which layers of dirt and rock are blasted away to get at coal seams that often are 100 feet or more below the surface, largely ended in the 1980s under the government's old interpretation of the strip-mining law.
In addition, hundreds of thousands of acres of state parks and wildlife refuges are likely to be opened for strip mining in Texas, Oklahoma, Illinois and Ohio.
For months, President Bush has pressed for changes in environmental regulations and succeeded in relaxing restrictions on filling wetlands, cutting timber, exploring for oil, and mining copper, uranium and other minerals on federal land.
Gov. Bill Clinton and his running mate, Sen. Albert Gore, say the administration is sacrificing the nation's natural heritage for the short-term benefit of industry.