Pombo Forces Sale Of Idaho Public Lands To California Corporation

Online Messenger #103

The Chairman of the House Resources Committee, Rep. Richard Pombo (R-CA-11), has attached mark-up legislation to the 2006 Budget Reconciliation Bill that includes over 50 pages of alterations to the national laws governing mining on public lands.

Included in his legislation is a mandated sale (for $1,000 per acre) of over 500 acres of public land administered by the BLM located adjacent to Western Watershed's Project's Greenfire Preserve in Custer County, Idaho. The sale would be to a California decorative stone company, L & W Stone, that operates a very large stone quarry on part of the lands proposed for sale.

The proposed sale of these public lands appears to be a direct consequence of a WWP lawsuit against the BLM over its failure to comply with national environmental protection laws in administering the quarry. The lawsuit was won by WWP in May 2005, and the BLM was ordered by the federal court to complete an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The Court, however, did not impose serious operating restrictions on the quarry pending completion of the EIS, and the quarry continues to operate without reductions in staff that include 75 Mexican nationals on guest worker visas good for eight months work in the U.S. every year. The Mexican workers work as the stone splitters at the quarry.

The sale of land would include approximately one third of a BLM designated Area Of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) next to the East Fork of the Salmon River. The ACEC was designated to protect relict plant communities.

Here is the URL and the front page story about this mandated public lands sale from today's Pocatello Idaho State Journal (Access the full story online at http://www.journalnet.com/articles/2005/10/29/news/local/news01.txt)

Quarrying aid from Congress: Lawmakers may vote on property sale

By John Miller - Associated Press Writer

A worker guides the loading of stone onto a flatbed truck at the Three Rivers Stone quarry near Clayton in this November 2004 file photo. The chairman of the U.S. House Resources Committee wants Congress to approve the sale of federal land in Eastern Idaho, that includes Three Rivers, to its California operator. AP photo.

BOISE (AP) - The chairman of the U.S. House Resources Committee wants Congress to approve the sale of federal land in central Idaho that's the site of one of America's largest decorative stone quarries to its California operator.

The move would skirt a federal judge's May 6 order that the Bureau of Land Management complete an environmental impact statement before quarry operator L & W Stone, based in Orland, Calif., can triple its size.

Critics, including the Hailey-based conservation group Western Watersheds Project, say Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., is trying to bypass tough public scrutiny requirements for 520 acres near the Salmon River to benefit a business owner who's given thousands in campaign contributions to Republicans.

"If a private corporation wishes to acquire public land for its own profit, then there should be a significant public process in which local people, and citizens across the nation, can play a part in any decision to sell public lands," said Jon Marvel, director of Western Watersheds, which operates a nearby wildlife preserve. "This takes it out of the public realm altogether."

Backers of the $520,000 deal, however, counter that it remedies a stalled quarry expansion that's threatening to shut down the operation. The quarry, with 85 workers, is one of the largest employers in isolated Custer County.

The Three Rivers quarry, located 20 miles from Challis, produces arguilite stone with gold, tan, beige and purple hues. Pombo's aides toured the site earlier this year with Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho.

At least twice since 1991, the quarry operator violated terms of its BLM operating plan by expanding beyond the allowed size, according to federal court documents.

Marvel argues that without federal oversight of the project after a sale, L & W Stone won't do enough to protect the surrounding landscape or rehabilitate the site once mining is complete.

In a lawsuit filed against the BLM by Western Watersheds, U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill in Boise ruled five months ago that federal environmental laws governing the property require an environmental impact statement before L & W Stone can increase the quarry to 166 acres, from its present 60 acres.

The BLM's impact statement isn't due to be published until June 2007, said David Howell, an agency spokesman in Idaho Falls.

"This whole situation adversely affected the company," said Kathy Benedetto, a Pombo staffer and House Resources Committee geologist in Washington, D.C. "They were in jeopardy of having to lay off a number of people, and maybe even close the quarry. It would have delayed the process for a couple of years."

Pombo's land-sale measure is due to be attached to the House's budget reconciliation bill, a midterm effort to revise the federal budget to address costs from Gulf Coast hurricanes and concern over the widening federal deficit. It passed the House Resource Committee 24-16 on Wednesday, but still faces a vote in the full House before it must clear the Senate.

Most proceeds of the quarry sale wouldn't flow into federal coffers: $200,000 of the $519,000 total would be paid directly to Custer County, another $200,000 is slated for Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation and $15,000 will cover deal costs. What's left over will go into the U.S. Treasury's general fund.

Currently, the BLM collects no royalties from the quarry - it can't, based on 19th-century mining laws - and Custer County collects no property taxes from federal land. Custer County Commission members have voiced support for the sale.

"The employment and revenue created by the company are beneficial to maintaining a stable economic base for Custer County," wrote Lin F. Hintze, the commission's chairman, in an Oct. 24 letter to Pombo. "We hope this land purchase will be made final."

Phone calls to Scott Laine, the owner of L & W Stone, at his northern California offices weren't immediately returned to The Associated Press. His family has given nearly $3,000 to U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, President Bush and the National GOP Congressional Committee since 2002.

"It's a classic example of pork-barrel politics," said Marvel.

Earlier this year, Simpson had considered including the sale in his proposal to create a new wilderness area in the Boulder and White Cloud mountains near Challis that's making its way through Congress now. But Pombo advised against that, saying the measure was better off under his control, Simpson aides said.

Josh Heird, a legislative assistant to Simpson in Washington, D.C., said the deal has nothing to do with the fact that Laine is a Republican booster and lives in California, Pombo's home state.

"The overall management would be easier for everybody involved," said Heird. "Whenever you're dealing with the federal government, everybody would say it's a very arduous, slow process trying to get permits."