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Want To Buy Some Federal Land?

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A new law passed make it legal for private entities to buy up some federal plots

On the surface, the bill reads like the mundane nip and tuck of federal mining law its authors say it is. But lawyers who have parsed its language say the real beneficiaries could be real estate developers, whose business has become a more potent economic engine in the West than mining.

Under the existing law, a mining claim is the vehicle that allows for the extraction of so-called hard-rock metals like gold or silver.

Under the House bill passed Friday, for the first time in the history of the 133-year-old mining law individuals or companies can file and expand claims even if the land at the heart of a claim has already been stripped of its minerals or could never support a profitable mine. The measure would also lift an 11-year moratorium on the passing of claims into full ownership.

Good thing or bad thing?

The provisions have struck fear through the West, from the resort areas of the Rockies like Aspen and Vail here in Colorado, to Park City in Utah, which are all laced with old mining claims. Critics say it could open the door for developers to use the claims to assemble large land parcels for projects like houses, hotels, ski resorts, spas or retirement communities.

And some experts on public land use say it is possible that energy companies could use the provision to buy land in the energy-rich fields of Wyoming and Montana on the pretext of mining, but then drill for oil and gas.

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But supporters of the bill, including Representative Jim Gibbons, Republican of Nevada, argue that critics like Mr. Leshy are missing the point of the legislation, and that allowing more mine-claim lands to be purchased would be an economic boon to rural communities that often struggle in the boom and bust cycle of mining. “Not only is this rhetoric false, it is an affront to the rural American families whose livelihoods depend on sustained economic development,” Mr. Gibbons said in a written statement.