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Forest fears

DEFENDERS OF the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge succeeded in knocking out a provision from the recently passed House budget bill that would have opened the sanctuary to oil drilling. But they were not able to eliminate from the bill another near-giveaway of federal lands to developers. This clause would permit the bargain-basement sale of millions of acres of federal land based on mining claims, even if the land has already been stripped of its valuable minerals or has no prospect of yielding a profit.

Another bill pending in the House would force the Forest Service to build logging roads into national forests to help timber companies harvest trees in woods that have suffered from forest fires. Conservation groups say the logging slows the natural recovery of fire-harmed woods and uses money better spent on fire prevention.

Opponents of the mining provision fear that the claims could be used as a subterfuge by energy companies and resort or housing developers to amass large parcels of federal land at prices as low as $1,000 a acre. Since 1994, there has been a moratorium on turning mining claims into full ownership, but the bill would put an end to the moratorium.

There is sharp disagreement between the bill's supporters and its critics on the potential impact of the measure and whether it would permit the sell-off of national park or wilderness area land. Backers say the provision could affect as few as 360,000 acres, while a database maintained by the Environmental Working Group indicates that individuals and companies could lay claim to 5.7 million acres. The measure's wording on claims in current national park or wilderness land is ambiguous. Supporters say these areas would be exempt; opponents raise the specter of bulldozers in the Joshua Tree or Death Valley national parks.

In addition to conservation organizations, hunting and fishing groups have been among the leaders in opposing the mining claim sell-off, fearing loss of access to prime streams and hunting areas. Residents of affluent mountain resort towns in the West are concerned about the potential for view-destroying developments if nearby mining claims fall into the hands of time-share promoters or oil drilling companies.

Both the mining provision and the timber bill are attempts by private interests to get privileged access to land and resources that are the birthright of all Americans. Senators on the budget bill conference committee should reject the House's mining claim clause, and the full House should tell the Forest Service to use its resources to avoid forest fires, not subsidize timber companies to profit from them.

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