Just when I thought things couldn't get much crazier in Washington, Representative Richard Pombo of California has decided to make a frontal assault on our national parks.
It was only a few weeks ago that Pombo, chairman of the House Resources Committee, proposed to put 15 national park units on the auction block to generate revenues he fears the nation will lose if the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge isn't opened to drilling.
While that provision was crossed out, now Pombo wants to open up national parks across the West to mining. Who writes this guy's scripts?
Pombo is starting to come across like he apparently won't stop his wheeling and dealing until he succeeds in selling off some priceless piece of America's heritage.
In his latest bid to scrap up $2 billion for a budget reconciliation bill, the Republican has added language to the legislation that directs the Interior secretary to "make mineral deposits and lands that contain them, including lands in which the valuable mineral deposit has been depleted, available for purchase to facilitate sustainable economic development."
This language, if it clears Congress and is signed into law by President Bush, could theoretically open Yellowstone National Park up to gold mining (remember, back in the 1990s a Canadian company was poised to mine for gold just outside the park's northeastern entrance?), and Death Valley also could be reopened to borax mine operations.
In all, national park lands in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming could be affected by this proposal.
According to Craig Obey of the National Parks Conservation Association, "Thousands of acres of mining claims bought out by the National Park Service in an effort to preserve Denali National Park during the past 25 years would now have to be made available for potential development."
"Chairman Pombo has effectively put a big FOR SALE sign on America's heritage," says Obey.
Frankly, I'll be surprised if this language makes it to the president's desk. It's just too outrageous. Surely not even the president would enjoy negotiating Yellowstone's roads along with a convoy of mine haul trucks.
Or would he?
Pombo seems to be playing a high-stakes poker game with our national parks. He seemingly won't be happy until oil rigs are firmly rooted on the arctic refuge, the Exxon Visitor Center is open for business in Yellowstone, and mining is an "acceptable impact" on the landscape of our parks.
What's equally disappointing is that cries of outrage are not showering down on Pombo from his colleagues in Congress. Nor are the concessionaires, whose livelihoods depend on park visitors, saying a peep.
If Pombo wasn't kowtowing to those who fund his campaign, but rather had a shred of statesman in his blood, he would search for, and find, that $2 billion in the pork-laden highways bill that Congress passed earlier this summer.
Doing so not only would prevent such shameless games with the national parks, but also put a measure of sensibility and respect back in Congress, something the body is woefully short of.