Learning Center
Plans & pricing Sign in
Sign Out

Environews Spheres of Influence


									 Environews Spheres of Influence

A 360                              VOLUME   112 | NUMBER 6 | May 2004 • Environmental Health Perspectives
                                                                                                                                                                  Spheres of Influence   |   Environmental Buyouts

                                                                                         E NVIRONMENTAL BUYOUTS
                                                                                               at a
                                                                                         Environmentalists working with the notion that the dollar can be more power-
                                                                                         ful than the regulatory sword have in the last two decades turned increasingly to
                                                                                         an alternative strategy for preventing some types of potential pollution. Rather
                                                                                         than lobby or regulate to stop such activities as mining of minerals and drilling
                                                                                         for oil, governments, nonprofit groups, and other organizations have started to
                                                                                         buy land—or mineral rights to land—to stop the activities from starting at all.
                                                                                            For the most part, the environmental community            Buyouts are one of four models of environmental
                                                                                         has welcomed these “white knights” armed with buy-       protection. The other models are regulation, in
                                                                                         out dollars. But buyout critics—who span the politi-     which the state makes rules to protect the environ-
                                                                                         cal spectrum from far right to far left—claim that       ment; free market environmentalism, in which no
                                                                                         although buyouts appear on the surface to be an easy     governmental activity, whether regulation or buyout,
Creatas, USDA Forest Service, BLM, National Park Service, Photodisc, Chris Reuther/EHP

                                                                                         way out, they disrupt the marketplace and offer          is allowed; and periodic payments, in which the gov-
                                                                                         incentives for bad behavior.                             ernment, a nonprofit organization, or even a private
                                                                                         Swap Meet                                                party makes regular payments to landholders who in
                                                                                         Some buyouts are meant to protect the species, land- exchange agree to restrictions on how they use their
                                                                                         forms, or other features of a parcel of land, while oth- property for a limited period of time. The mix
                                                                                         ers are meant to prevent polluting activities, such as between these strategies varies with the political cli-
                                                                                         mining or oil exploration, from taking place on the mate. Currently in the United States, Echeverria
                                                                                         land. Regardless of the goal of the purchase, the issues says, regulation has been at best stagnating in the
                                                                                         linked to buyouts are essentially the same, says John mix. In some senses, environmental activists have
                                                                                         Echeverria, executive director of the Georgetown been left little choice but to buy to protect.
                                                                                         Environmental Law and Policy Institute at                    An environmental buyout is basically a swap—
                                                                                         Georgetown University.                                   money for land, money for mineral rights, land for

                                                                                         Environmental Health Perspectives   • VOLUME 112 | NUMBER 6 | May 2004                                             A 361
Spheres of Influence     |   Environmental Buyouts

land, land for mineral rights.
Buying land to protect it or its
contents is nothing new; in the
United States, the concept really
took off in the 1980s. During this
period, public interest in the envi-
ronment germinated hundreds of
small land conservancy organiza-
tions and helped the Nature
Conservancy—which has the mis-
sion of buying land to protect
it—to become the largest envi-
ronmental group in the world.
    In the last two decades, govern-
ments at all levels started informal
buyout programs as well, although
Celia Boddington, a spokesperson
for the U.S. Bureau of Land
Management (BLM), says the
BLM has, to her knowledge, never
had a formal pollution-prevention
buyout program. Instead, any pur-
chases have been generated on an
ad hoc basis by the BLM, Congress,
or high-level administrators such as
former secretary of the interior Disaster averted? Reclamation work is done on the Glengarry Mine site (above), part of the New World min-
Bruce Babbitt, frequently after lob- ing area on Henderson Mountain in Montana. The site was purchased to prevent toxic contamination of water-
bying by environmental groups.            ways in nearby Yellowstone National Park by acid drainage from hardrock mining.
    The last few years have seen a
handful of pollution-prevention buyouts in          decades to prevent the opening of the zinc           of these organizations change, and with
the United States. For example, in 2000 the         and copper mine, which the tribes said               them may change the organizations’ philoso-
U.S. Department of the Interior paid $1             would sully their reservations, wild rice            phies. If the government is buying the land,
million to close the White Vulcan Mine, an          ponds, and pristine waterways, including the         the rules governing how that land is treated
open-pit pumice extraction facility near            Wolf River.                                          can change with a new administration.
Flagstaff, Arizona. In 2002 American                                                                         Conservative theorists such as Jay Lehr, a
Electric Power engineered a buyout of virtu-        Simple or Simplistic?                                hydrologist and science director of the inde-
ally the entire town of Cheshire, Ohio, pay-        Although activists have applauded land and           pendent Heartland Institute research organi-
ing the 200 or so residents $20 million for         mineral rights acquisitions as a solution that       zation of Chicago, oppose buyouts—at least
their homes and their promise to not sue for        appears to offer long-term environmental             those that governments make—because
exposure to past pollution from the compa-          protection, critics question how well buyouts        they undermine the free operation of the
ny’s nearby coal-fired power plant.                 really work. “The basic reality is that there is     capitalist system. When governments step
    Also in 2002, the Bush administration           no way that we can buy our way out of the            in to purchase land, Lehr says, they affect
agreed to spend $235 million to buy back            larger-scale environmental land management           the demand for that land and so influence
oil and natural gas rights—which the feder-         problems that we have,” says Leigh                   the price that similar parcels will com-
al government had sold to Chevron,                  Raymond, an assistant professor of political         mand. And when governments use taxpay-
Conoco, and the Murphy Exploration and              science at Purdue University who studies             er funds to buy land, they are transferring
Production Company in the 1980s—in the              environmental policy. “As seductive as the           wealth from many individuals to a few.
Everglades and in waters near the Florida           option is, it’s just not feasible, financially, to   “We need to separate out what is a good
Panhandle. This agreement, said President           do that in the grand scheme of things. And           economic decision and will benefit the
Bush at a 30 May 2002 news conference,              secondly, I’m not sure we should. I think it’s       greatest good for the greatest number with-
will protect about 765,000 acres in the             an open question whether and to what                 in the nation,” Lehr says, “from what is a
Everglades, Big Cypress National Preserve,          degree a property owner owns the right to            rather underhanded political motivation
the Florida Panther National Wildlife               do certain destructive things with his or her        that is covered up by fuzzy rhetoric from
Refuge, and Ten Thousand Islands                    land.”                                               the environmental groups.”
National Wildlife Refuge from drilling or                There is also no guarantee, says                    Ultimately, says Jim Jensen, executive
spills related to drilling.                         Echeverria, that buyouts offer any real              director of the Montana Environmental
    In late 2003, two Native American               security in the long run. “There’s a com-            Information Center, a nonprofit advocacy
tribes—the Chippewa Mole Lake Band and              pletely erroneous assumption that buyouts            group in Helena, the taxpayers bear the costs
the Forest County Potawatomi—struck a               result in permanent protection of the                when land is bought instead of regulated. If
deal to pay $16.5 million for the Crandon           resources,” he says, “and it’s just not so.”         a government buys, of course, tax dollars are
                                                                                                                                                          USDA Forest Service

Mine site in northeastern Wisconsin. The            Conditions that are placed on purchases              used. If a nonprofit group is doing the buy-
tribes acquired a tract of 6,000 acres, mineral     can be easy to change, and many of the               ing, the land is removed from the tax rolls.
rights to the land, and the mining company          organizations that are buying land are small         And if land is donated, the donor gets a tax
itself. This ended a battle of almost three         and not particularly stable. The managers            break. There are also tax breaks for allowing

A 362                                                                           VOLUME   112 | NUMBER 6 | May 2004 • Environmental Health Perspectives
                                                                                               Spheres of Influence     |   Environmental Buyouts

conservation easements or covenants to be          when it was announced,” says Jensen. “But             Similarly, another claim holder in
attached to land and for selling below mar-        in my estimation, the public was generally       Montana bought the rights to an 891-acre
ket value. This is only fair, says Brook           misled by the environmental community.”          site in the Sweet Grass Hills that Jensen says
McDonald, president and CEO of The                     Although the mine should not have been       includes some the most environmentally
Conservation Foundation, a Naperville,             allowed, Jensen says, the arguments made in      sensitive areas in the state and is also sacred
Illinois, nonprofit land and watershed pro-        favor of the buyout were overstated. He          to several Native American tribes. The claim
tection organization—since the public is           explains that the New World site was not         holder has suggested that Congress approve
calling for environmental protection, the          pristine but rather in one of the most pollut-   funds for the BLM to buy out his holdings
public should bear at least some of the cost.      ed areas in Montana, contaminated with           so that the property can be developed as a
                                                   pollution caused by historic mining there.       state park. Failing that, he suggested that the
Right, But for the Wrong Reasons                   And although a full-scale cyanide-based          state itself make the purchase. In addition to
Perhaps the best publicized pollution-pre-         metal mine could have threatened                 the value of the land, the landowner has
vention buyout in U.S. history—and one             Yellowstone, he says, the potential impacts      asked to be compensated for the value of the
that points up some of the imperfections of        were exaggerated.                                gold and silver—which he has estimated at
the strategy—was the 1996 New World                    But the primary reason that this deal        1.75 million ounces—that he planned to
Mine land exchange. This gold, silver, and         didn’t make sense, Jensen says, is that, as      extract from the land. Such requests are
copper mine would have sat high on                 with other pollution-prevention buyouts,         common but unjustified if the area could
Montana’s Henderson Mountain, not far              proper regulation could have accomplished        not be mined legally in the first place,
from Yellowstone National Park. Although           the same goal for far less money. “There         Raymond says.
environmentalists worried that the land            were a number of reasons not to build that            There’s no way to know whether a claim
itself would be marred by the massive min-         mine,” he says. “Their tailings impound-         holder is prospecting for minerals or for buy-
ing operation, their real fear was that highly     ment was engineered in a place and with a        outs, says Alan Septoff, research and infor-
acidic runoff from the mine would contam-          design that was extremely likely to fail and     mation systems director of Earthworks, a
inate rivers, including those running              would have violated the wetlands protection      Washington, D.C., environmental nonprofit
through Yellowstone. A hardrock mine can           provisions of the Clean Water Act. There         formerly known as the Mineral Policy
produce acid mine drainage until all of its        was perfect authority in federal law to deny     Center. Regardless, he says, just the existence
sulfides are consumed, which can take hun-         that permit. The Clinton administration          of lucrative buyouts creates an expectation of
dreds of years [for more information on acid       simply wasn’t willing to do it.”                 similar deals among claim holders.
mine drainage, see “The Earth’s Open
Wounds: Abandoned and Orphaned                     Raised Expectations                              A Better Bargain?
Mines,” EHP 111:A154–A161 (2003)].                 An unfortunate side effect of beginning a        If buyouts aren’t the right answer, what is?
     Activists also worried that cyanide,          pattern of buyouts is that it stimulates         Governments should regulate rather than
which is used to separate gold flakes from         demand for future buyouts, Raymond says.         compensate, Septoff says. A good start, he
pulverized ore, could escape into the regional     When potential sources of pollution draw         says, would be to reform the 1872 Mining
watershed. Cyanide spills—from collapsed           high buyout prices that are far above what       Law, which allows individuals to claim cer-
or leaking structures that are meant to con-       similar, but benign, lands would command,        tain federal lands if they can first prove that
tain mine refuse or from accidents in han-         Echeverria adds, a new type of prospecting       they could sustain a profitable hardrock
dling the transportable dry crystal form of        is created: searching for land for which just    mine and then come up with $5 an acre,
the chemical—have contaminated hundreds            the threat of development will draw an           plus a $100-per-claim annual fee.
of miles of rivers in such locations as Brazil,    attractive payoff.                                   Even without these changes, regula-
Guyana, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Romania,                   “[Habitual buyouts] create the availabili-   tion—old, new, or revised—can be effective,
Spain, and the United States, in some cases        ty of public and private funds for buyouts       Jensen says. The Crandon Mine deal in
killing virtually all wildlife nearby. When        and encourage investors to scout out those       northern Wisconsin, for example, was bro-
cyanide is used to liberate gold from rock, it     kinds of opportunities, invest in problematic    kered in large part because a series of compa-
also frees other heavy metals, such as arsenic,    projects, and pursue environmentally             nies were not able to persuade the state to
mercury, and selenium, which can find their        destructive ideas in order to put themselves     issue permits for the mine to open, says Al
way into the water supply if containment           in the position where they can demand            Gedicks, executive secretary of the nonprofit
structures fail.                                   compensation,” Echeverria says. Called           Wisconsin Resources Protection Council.
     The threat of a massive cyanide-depen-        “environmental extortion” or “environmental      And in 1998 Montana adopted a citizen’s
dent hardrock mine perched above                   blackmail” by some activists and “fair com-      initiative known as I-137—which the
Yellowstone became a cause célèbre. A 14           pensation” by industry, such requests from       Montana Environmental Information
August 1995 New York Times editorial               landowners and claim holders often follow        Center proposed and mining companies are
called for Congress to buy out—or failing          close on the heels of a high-profile buyout.     challenging—that prohibits new open-pit
that, for President Clinton to regulate out—           Montana, which houses both unspoiled         cyanide-based gold mines.
the proposed mine. The Clinton administra-         wilderness and some of the most polluted             When you regulate effectively, Raymond
tion ultimately paid $65 million to Crown          mine sites in the country, is a case in point.   says, buyouts become less necessary. “I worry
Butte Mines, a U.S. subsidiary of Canadian         Within a month of the New World deal,            that in the rush to embrace acquisition as a
mining giant Noranda, for mining claims on         says Jensen, a Canadian speculator went into     really useful strategy for conservation,” he
about 25,000 acres surrounding the New             one of the region’s most sacred, ecologically    says, “that we’ll lose sight of the fact that reg-
World site, and the mine was never built.          significant areas, a place called the Rocky      ulation is far more effective and, in some
     Like most pollution-prevention buyouts,       Mountain Front, and staked mineral claims.       ways, far more important as a way of making
the New World deal played well in much of          The claim holder told the press that he          sure that people who own land protect it.”
the environmental community. “There was            would consider buyout offers from the fed-
nearly universal support for the buyout            eral or state government.                                                            Scott Fields

Environmental Health Perspectives   • VOLUME 112 | NUMBER 6 | May 2004                                                                       A 363

To top