In the last days of the Reagan administration, the Interior Department is taking a series of steps to accelerate or simplify the transfer of public lands and public sources of energy to private entrepreneurs.
Some members of Congress and environmentalists say the moves are an 11th-hour giveaway of public resources. But Interior Department officials say they are obeying the law and protecting existing property claims on those lands."We are seeing a classic lame duck move to favor parties friendly to the administration," said David Alberswerth, director of public lands programs for the National Wildlife Federation, the country's largest conservation group.
Utah environmentalists joined the chorus of disappointment that the Reagan administration is making a last-ditch effort to carry through programs they have fought all along.
"The Reagan administration has been opposed to protection of our lands. This just appears to be a last-minute effort to seal its mark on lands in the Western United States," said Rudy Lukez, conservation chairman of the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club. "And it's a very ugly mark.
"It concerns us very much that, with a mounting U.S. defict, they're giving land to the richest corporations in the world. It's a real tragedy," Lukez said. The last-minute push to implement Reagan philosophies is "disappointing but not unexpected. It's more of the same of what we've seen for seven years and 11 months."
Among recent actions by the Interior Department are these:
- Resuming the process of transferring title to large federal oil shale tracts in the West at a fraction of their market value.
- Preparing rules that would lower the royalty fees private operators pay for coal mined on federal lands.
- Pushing to delay rules that would limit oil and gas drilling in national forests.
- Proposing still other rules that critics say could expose some protected land to development and mining.
All the actions involve proposals to change rules, except the move to transfer oil shale lands to private parties.
The department last month began processing applications for patents, similar to deeds, that would transfer the shale land titles at $2.50 an acre. The move came after a congressional moratorium on the transfers expired.
The department is processing patents for 24,000 acres, said Rep. Nick J. Rahall II, the West Virginia Democrat who heads the Mining and Natural Resources Subcommittee, and 228,000 acres have already been claimed.
Two of the proposed rule changes involve royalties for coal mined on private land.
The department is about to publish a final rule that would in effect lower royalties the operators pay to federal and state governments, department officials said, because some things like taxes would no longer be included in the valuation of the coal.
Another new rule would lower the royalty on coal from underground mines on federal lands to 5 percent from 8 percent. Publication of this proposed rule has been delayed, but only temporarily, department officials say.
Another action involved rules proposed by the U.S. Forest Service to regulate and restrain drilling for oil and gas in national forests.
Those rules were put on hold by the Office of Management and Budget after the Interior Department objected to the rules because of "major philosophical differences." One was over the Forest Service's proposal to make permission to drill contingent on the effect on the environment.
Finally, the department proposed rules last week that would change the way decisions are made about who may legally dig for coal on lands like national parks.
Environmentalists said the proposal could expose some protected land to development.