The tip-off that members of Congress are up to no good is when they conceal true motives of legislation by describing it as just routine tweaking of old law.
Only the naïve buy into that sleight of hand. The fact is, changes proposed in the 133-year-old mining law now making their way toward a final vote would plunder public ownership of anywhere from 5.7 million to 300 million acres of land and open the door to commercial exploitation in pristine Western-state recreation areas.
Any doubt about motive can be found in the bill's prime sponsor Rep. Richard Pombo, a California Republican and chairman of the House Resources Committee who's obsessed with selling off public lands and gutting the Endangered Species Act.
The bill's essence is this: Individuals and companies would be able to file and expand mining claims even if the land had been stripped of minerals. The bill also would end the 11-year ban on outright ownership of such land. And, ownership would come cheap.
One fear is that petroleum firms will snap up land on the pretext of mining, close it to the public, then drill for oil and gas. A second is that claims will be filed as a pretense to secure land for development.
Given President Bush's coziness with oil and gas producers, and hostility toward conservation groups, opponents of this raid on public lands need not look for a veto.
Since the bill passed by only two votes in the House before heading for conference committee, time still remains for objectors to write and call congressmen who might be persuaded to think and vote like statesmen rather than land speculators.