False alarm

  Two years ago, the Department of Interior reported that nonprofit conservation organizations such as The Nature Conservancy were making "substantial" money buying land and selling it to federal agencies. Various conservatives and wise-use groups seized on the report, saying it proved that environmentalists exploit the federal government as ruthlessly as any corporation using the public lands. Then-Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan proposed regulations preventing federal agencies from paying a nonprofit conservation group any more for a piece of land than the group itself paid. The regulations were never approved, but the controversy spawned another investigation. Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood, R, and Rep. Bob Smith, R, asked the General Accounting Office to examine land transactions between nonprofits and the Forest Service and Bureau of Reclamation from 1988-1992. The GAO concludes that nonprofits incurred net losses. "Of 249 land acquisitions involving nonprofits, 244 were made at or below fair market value," the GAO concludes. The agencies' relationships with nonprofits "appear to have been positive and have not resulted in the types of problems that Interior's Inspector General was concerned with ..." For a copy of the 29-page Land Acquisitions Involving Nonprofit Conservation Organizations, write U.S. General Accounting Office, P.O. Box 6015, Gaithersburg, MD 20884-6015 (202/512-6000). The report includes a three-page synopsis of the 1992 Interior Department study.