Too much ground to cover

December 05, 2005

It was an amazing feat, really. Just when folks figured the decades-old battle to protect Alaska's wildlife refuge from oil drilling was a lost cause, a bold band of House Republicans stood up to their leaders and thwarted the drilling plan on the verge of final approval.

Yet these two dozen moderates and mavericks barely had time to celebrate their victory before it became clear they would have to return to the ramparts.

They may have spared Alaska's refuge for a while longer, but they failed to block a potentially even more egregious provision included in a $50 billion budget bill that could make millions of acres of public lands available for sale and commercial development.

Negotiations are now under way to minimize the damage in the final version of the budget bill, which Congress hopes to pass before Christmas. For the sake of both the environment and the national legacy of open spaces, GOP moderates must drive the hardest possible bargain.

The Democrats' contribution can't be forgotten here. A newfound unity in the minority party ranks is what has given the GOP moderates their muscle. With all 202 Democrats voting against the budget bill - and other controversial measures offered by GOP leaders - a few defections from the 231 Republicans mean leaders can't meet the 218-vote minimum required for approval.

Moderates have trouble holding their own ranks together, though. The Alaska drilling issue is the single strongest thread, according to Maryland Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest. Opposition to trimming direct Medicaid benefits runs a close second. After that, priorities vary.

But the latest industry land grab should be near the top of every citizen's outrage list.

Squeezed into the small print of the $50 billion budget bill was a provision that revives and expands an 1872 mining law that allowed prospectors to file claims where they found hard rock deposits, such as gold, silver and copper. The West is laced with such claims; for the past 11 years, Congress has prevented them from being transferred into private ownership. As passed by the House, the legislation lifts that moratorium and for the first time allows new claims to be filed even where the land has nothing beneath it to mine.

Supporters of the measure say it will promote economic development in impoverished old mining towns. Perhaps so, but at the cost of turning America's last wild spaces into condominium complexes.

Mr. Gilchrest despairs of defeating the mining provision outright. But he is hopeful a compromise can be reached to exempt all national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and such ecologically delicate places, as well as to limit land transfers to existing claims that can support profitable mining.

Only half a lode legislatively, but perhaps enough to hold off developers.

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