DENVER, Nov. 19 - Private companies and individuals would be able to buy large tracts of federal land, from sagebrush basins to high-peak hiking trails around the West, under the terms of the spending bill passed Friday by a two-vote margin in the House of Representatives.
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.
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.