Public Lands Should Remain Public

On our behalf, Congress has reserved the authority to determine the fate of the national landscape.

Very occasionally, following exhaustive review and lengthy public hearings, small land swaps have occurred between the public and a private party. The result was usually the enlargement, not diminishment, of the overall public land base.

One notable exception was found in the Congress’s willingness to allow “patents,” perhaps more correctly called “giveaways” of the public’s land to mining companies.

Examples abound of those rip-offs, encouraged by the outdated 1872 Mining Act.

One of the most notorious occurred only 11 years ago when a company was allowed to “patent,” that is purchase, 1,000 acres of the public’s land for only $5,000. That property contained $10 billion in gold.

The Congress finally closed and locked that barn door; something many of us had tried time and again to accomplish.

Congress is considering the coming year’s budget. Tucked away deep in that bill is an unrelated provision encouraging sales of the public’s land. For the first time in America’s history, Congress is encouraging the sale of public lands, not only for mining, but general development as well.

The outcome of this matter is especially important to those of us in the West where most of this public land lies. Out this way, the land is not an abstraction. It is real; we hunt, hike, camp, fish, ride and work on it. Our land and the living things on it provide our way of life and give this region its unique and important qualities.

We westerners don’t want our land put up for grabs and we resent this midnight, slam-dunk attempt to change the federal law to encourage the sale of our birthright. It is estimated by the proposal’s prime advocate, Congressman Richard Pombo, a Republican from California, that perhaps 360,000 acres of our land will be put on the auction block. Others looking at the language of the proposal disagree and tell us that 350 million acres of the public’s land is jeopardized.

The administration’s Bureau of Land Management has estimated that as much as 20 million acres under their stewardship, most of it here in the West, could be sold off –and everyone of those acres belongs to you.

From the Tahoe to the Yaak, Death Valley to Yellowstone, this land is your land and it may soon be for sale.

PAT WILLIAMS, a former congressman, is a senior fellow at the University of Montana’s Center for the Rocky Mountain West.


Pat Williams served 18 years as Montana’s Congressman. He now lives in Missoula where he teaches at the University of Montana.