One of the true treasures of the state of Alaska is its largesse of magnificent public lands. These lands are used by thousands of Alaskans each year for hunting, fishing, skiing and hiking. In fact, there is more than $300 million in recreational spending each year on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands in Alaska. Current congressional legislation threatens this legacy - and this revenue - by opening up at least 200,000 acres of Alaska public lands for immediate sale to mining and other corporate interests. This includes 170 existing mining claims in Alaska national parks.
Last month, the House of Representatives passed a massive budget bill with a provision hidden away inside that would pave the way for the privatization of millions of acres of Western public land. Under the guise of "reforming" the antiquated 1872 Mining Law and helping Western communities, language drafted by Reps. Pombo, R-Calif., and Gibbons, R-Nev., requires the federal government to sell public lands to anyone. After the land is bought, it is private land and can be used for any purpose including real estate development.
As the former Alaska regional director of the National Park Service, I support reforming the antiquated 1872 Mining Law, but the Pombo/Gibbons proposal is not real reform. Rather than addressing the issues related to mineral development on our nations public lands in an open forum, this legislation cuts the public out of the process and could lead to greater environmental impacts and "no trespassing" signs in some of Alaska's most treasured places, like the Bristol Bay watershed. The watershed, home to the world's greatest commercial salmon fishery, is also popular with recreational hunters and anglers. The mining subtitle would greatly facilitate increased mining development in the area and put an additional 3.6 million acres of BLM lands in the Bristol Bay area at risk.
If this legislation passes, it would be catastrophic for Alaska and the rest of the West, selling off a huge land grab and putting millions of acres of public lands off-limits and damaging our burgeoning recreational economy. A broad range of associations and individuals strongly oppose the bill, including Trout Unlimited and more than 50 other sportsmen's, wildlife, and conservation groups, plus Jewelers of America, the nation's largest retail jewelry trade association, a former deputy director of the Bureau of Land Management during the Bush administration's first term, three former chiefs of the U.S. Forest Service and numerous elected officials across the West.
Thankfully, the Senate version of the budget bill does not include the privatization provisions. When House and Senate conferees meet next week to resolve the differences in the bills. I hope they realize the devastating effects this language could have on Alaska and the West and reject it.
Former Alaska resident Bob Barbee of Bozeman, Mont., is a 42-year veteran of the National Park Service and served as regional director for Alaska's national parks until his retirement.