Environmentalists seek to block BLM land sale for Idaho mine

The Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is seriously considering selling over 1,100 acres of public land to accommodate a promising phosphate mining project in southeastern Idaho.

Under the plan, BLM would sell at fair market value 1,142 acres of its vast holdings to J.R. Simplot Co. for the mine, located in the mountains about ten miles east of Soda Springs, Idaho.  Simplot would use the phosphate to make fertilizer.  In addition to the land it would purchase from BLM, the company is considering a land swap with the adjacent Caribu-Targhee National Forest that would add 400 more acres to the site. 

According to the Associated Press, Simplot needs the combined BLM/Forest Service land to have a site large enough to build a permanent facility to store mining waste.  Some of those mine tailings could contain traces of selenium, a mining byproduct that has been blamed for polluting streams and harming livestock in the region.

BLM has never sold land before to a company to facilitate a mining operation. On the other hand, the agency has long had a policy of selling off isolated parcels that are not economical for BLM to manage.  Given its isolated location, the Simplot parcel would fit that description.  In any event, the prospect of selling federally-owned land to a company eager to turn it into a commercially viable enterprise in the rural West has sent chills down the spines of environmentalists.

“We just have a much better ability to insert ourselves in a project and get important changes made if they are on public lands instead of private,” Greater Yellowstone Coalition spokesman Marv Hoyt tells the AP.  “But there is also the question of when public lands are sold, and it doesn’t matter to who (sic), the public not only risks losing the resource value, but access to other lands.”

Officials at BLM and the US Forest Service estimate it will take three years to decide whether to sell the land to the mining company.  Over 60 percent of Idaho’s 82,413 square miles are owned by the federal government. The parcel, whose sale the Greater Yellowstone Coalition finds so objectionable, contains less than 2 square miles.

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About the Author: Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D., is a senior policy analyst with CFACT.