In Montana, the numbers aren't any easier to parse. Staff for Rep. Denny Rehberg, who voted to lift the ban despite concerns about public access because it was wrapped into a massive budget bill, say they've been told that no more than 7,300 acres would be impacted. However, Bonnie Gestering, in Earthworks' Missoula office, says the state has about 246,000 acres that could be immediately sold, with millions more at risk. She's especially offended that such a major policy change was folded into a must-pass bill, which blocked substantive discussion about whether the nation wants to sell its public lands.
Going to the people who actually work with the numbers doesn't answer the question, either. The Bureau of Land Management's Billings office says estimating the affected acreage would require a massive effort. That there are currently about 11,800 active mining claims throughout the state, varying from 2.5 to 160 acres, lends some insight, but not much.
For the last 11 years, Congress has banned the patenting, or selling, of federal lands with mining claims. Prior to that, land was sold for as little as .50 an acre. The lifting of the ban isn't guaranteed, since Congress must reconcile differences between the bill's House and Senate versions in December discussions. The nation's massive, outraged response also seems to threaten its success; for example, Sen. Max Baucus says he will fight the measure every step of the way, on account of the fact that it's "an unprecedented assault on public lands in Montana."