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Sierra Magazine
Ways & Means: The Rest of the Story

Conventional wisdom is no match for common sense.

by Carl Pope

Radio commentator Paul Harvey likes to talk about ėthe rest of the story--the common-sense facts behind a public controversy left out of most news accounts. Harvey's conception of ėfacts, though, is rather loose: he joined Rush Limbaugh, for example, in spreading the baseless rumor that trees were clearcut at the Grand Canyon to provide better camera angles for President Clinton's announcement of the new national monument in Utah. Since talk-radio hosts often accuse environmentalists of exaggeration and alarmism, maybe it's time to hear ėthe rest of the story from our side.

So here's a common claim: there's no reason to repeal the Mining Law of 1872, which allows mining patents to be staked on federal land for the asking.

The rest of the story? Just upstream from Yellowstone National Park, a Canadian company called Noranda purchased some old mining claims to the New World Mine, and bought a further 27 acres of federal land at 1872 prices--just $5 an acre. By the company's own reckoning, it stood to make a minimum of $600 million on the gold, silver, and copper it could take out--at the cost of imperiling the nation's oldest national park.

Last year, the Clinton administration blocked the proposed mine by giving Noranda $65 million--money the taxpayers would never have had to pay if the Interior Department had been able to refuse the company's patent application in the first place.

Claim: the passage of ėtakings legislation, whereby property owners are compensated by the government for any loss of property value caused by environmental laws, would protect small landowners from heavy- handed federal regulators seeking to prevent them from building retirement homes or plowing the family farm.

The rest of the story: the negotiations to protect America's last privately held old-growth redwood forest, the Headwaters ecosystem in Northern California, showed how crying ėtakings simply works to make the rich richer. Charles Hurwitz, the Texas financier who took over the Headwaters in a 1980s junk bond deal, threatened a takings lawsuit if he was prevented from clearcutting the forest. As a result of his legal blackmail, the government offered to pay $380 million in ransom for a small and environmentally inadequate segment of the forest.

Claim: the federal government already owns too much land, especially in the West. Instead of buying threatened land, the government should acquire it through swaps for other public lands.

The rest of the story: every year, $900 million is deposited into the Land and Water Conservation Fund from royalties received from offshore oil leases. But Congress appropriates only a fraction of these funds to conserve land and water, spending the rest in areas such as deficit reduction. So when the government needs to acquire land like the New World Mine or Headwaters Forest, it is forced to combine limited amounts of cash with swaps of ėsurplus land elsewhere. Last fall, the deal to acquire 285,000 acres of privately held land in the Mojave National Preserve threatened to fall through when the owner, Catellus Corporation, discovered that the same $36 million in cash it had been promised had also been promised to Charles Hurwitz. If the Land and Water Conservation Fund were intact, there would be no need to pit saving the desert against saving the redwoods.

Claim: there are too many regulations governing the release of toxic substances into the environment. As long as the known health effects can be shown to be less costly than the quantifiable benefits, the chemicals should be allowed to flow into our air and waterways.

The rest of the story: for 50 years, millions of tons of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were released into the environment before they were finally banned, largely because of evidence that they might cause cancer. Industry mounted a major effort to demonstrate that PCBs were not as carcinogenic as early studies suggested, and that the public's concern was overblown. Now, however, many studies (see Hormone Impostors) strongly implicate PCBs as a major threat to the reproductive systems of humans and wildlife. The new evidence shows that PCBs are, in fact, even more dangerous than previously believed.

The rest of the story is usually not terribly surprising. Common sense suggests that giving mining and timber companies irrevocable rights to devastate the landscape will prove costly to the public; that the easiest way to save environmentally critical parcels is for the government to purchase them; and that synthetic chemicals should be regarded as hazardous until proven otherwise. Despite the money our opponents spend trying to discredit common sense, the real world confirms its validity time and time again.

Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club. He can be reached by e-mail at carl.pope@sierraclub.org.


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