Appraisals are the problem

  Dear HCN,

I read with interest and enjoyment your editorial about our former neighbor, Tom Chapman (HCN, 8/2/99). Of course, the problem is that when Congress created the wilderness lands in 1964, it chose to deal with inholdings sometime in the future. The value of those inholdings, like most real estate, has risen significantly since then, and Congress now needs to deal with these increased values to protect the wonderful wilderness it created for us.

But the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have to use appraisal rules that cause the agencies to act like a Realtor's nightmare client. If the client owns a property, it is priceless; if the client wants to buy a property, it is worthless. Most landowners I know who have tried to work with these agencies come away angry and frustrated because of the agency appraisal.

A few years ago, I became involved with some land the BLM hoped to protect for recreation. The land bordered the north side of the Colorado River near Loma, Colo. There were three adjoining private parcels the BLM wanted, the parcels which controlled the riverfront for a couple of miles starting at the Loma boat ramp, which the BLM hoped to expand. The easternmost property was about 600 acres, the middle property was 50 acres and the next property, also known as Horsethief, was more than 1,000 acres. The properties were for sale for $600,000, $80,000 and $1 million-plus, respectively. BLM was attempting to buy the most critical property first, which was the 600-acre parcel.

I had helped with the first BLM appraisal of the 600-acre parcel by supplying comparable sale prices. I also volunteered to help find an exchange or obtain a conservation easement for no fee. The 600 acres first appraised for around $250,000 (about $400/acre). Not long after that, I handled the sale of the 50-acre parcel to some friends of mine for $80,000. The BLM did a second appraisal of the 600-acre parcel, hoping to get closer to the $600,000 asking price. I again helped supply comparable values. The $1,600/acre price paid for the 50 acres supported the $600,000 price for the 600 acres. But the BLM appraisal rules would not allow the use of the sale. The appraisal said the buyers were "uninformed." My friends still live on and love their 50 acres. They think it was a bargain.

The 600 acres did sell for $600,000 and the BLM lost the chance to protect the property. The owners of the 600 acres wanted to sell to the BLM, but came to believe that the BLM wanted to steal their property.

In the past, the Forest Service and BLM have often treated private property rights with callous arrogance. The focus that Tom Chapman has placed on government land policies has improved the way the agencies deal with private landowners. That same focus has helped organizations like the Wilderness Land Trust to succeed in protecting land the agencies cannot protect on their own.

Government appraisal rules need to recognize the "public value" of land. To appraise private land that threatens a national treasure as grazing land (the land's lowest value) is ludicrous. And, that is exactly the way many of these appraisals have been made. A fair "public value" would be much higher than grazing.

So, I hope we don't strip lands of wilderness designation just to spite landowners who want a fair or even a high price for the land they are lucky enough or farsighted enough to own. It would be much better to appraise the threatening private land at a price that reflects its value to the public - us.

Richard Montrose

Glenwood Springs, Colorado

The writer describes himself as a "recovering Realtor."