Digging for answers 

No one seems to know exactly what will happen if the ban on selling the nation's public mining lands is lifted, a move the U.S. House of Representatives approved by a two-vote margin Nov. 18. More specifically, the far-flung acreage is too abundant to tally and the law's multiple revisions too complicated to allow for gauging the outcome. Hunters, conservationists and many legislators say 5.7 million acres could be sold for as little as ,000 an acre and used for development instead of mining, which adds up to a massive land giveaway. Rep. Dick Pombo, R-Calif., and other supporters, however, maintain that only 360,000 acres could be sold nationwide.

In Montana, the numbers aren't any easier to parse. Staff for Rep. Denny Rehberg, who voted to lift the ban despite concerns about public access because it was wrapped into a massive budget bill, say they've been told that no more than 7,300 acres would be impacted. However, Bonnie Gestering, in Earthworks' Missoula office, says the state has about 246,000 acres that could be immediately sold, with millions more at risk. She's especially offended that such a major policy change was folded into a must-pass bill, which blocked substantive discussion about whether the nation wants to sell its public lands.

Going to the people who actually work with the numbers doesn't answer the question, either. The Bureau of Land Management's Billings office says estimating the affected acreage would require a massive effort. That there are currently about 11,800 active mining claims throughout the state, varying from 2.5 to 160 acres, lends some insight, but not much.

For the last 11 years, Congress has banned the patenting, or selling, of federal lands with mining claims. Prior to that, land was sold for as little as .50 an acre. The lifting of the ban isn't guaranteed, since Congress must reconcile differences between the bill's House and Senate versions in December discussions. The nation's massive, outraged response also seems to threaten its success; for example, Sen. Max Baucus says he will fight the measure every step of the way, on account of the fact that it's "an unprecedented assault on public lands in Montana."

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