A chastened BLM moved its appraisers from district offices to the national office to encourage more objective decisions. The Forest Service, meanwhile, gave its national office more opportunities to scrutinize exchanges, and revised its handbooks to better guide managers through the complicated process.
By 2009, the GAO reported that land-swap management had improved significantly in terms of guaranteeing public benefit. Extenuating circumstances contributed, as budget cuts forced agencies to be more selective. During the '90s, for example, the Forest Service alone averaged 115 exchanges a year, while from 2004 to 2008, the GAO noted just 250 'completed, pending, or terminated land exchanges' handled by both that agency and the BLM.
'Land exchanges are discretionary, so just because someone walks into their offices with a great idea doesn't mean they're obligated to do anything,' says Adam Poe, president of the Western Land Group, who has facilitated swaps for the last 30 years. 'Getting their attention is tough.'
Lawsuits and court rulings have added more oversight. In 2010, for example, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over half the West, halted a deal in Arizona, in which the BLM had accepted 7,300 acres of private land from Asarco in exchange for 10,000 federal acres that contained valuable wildlife habitat. The BLM had decided that the mining company would have gained the mineral rights to the land anyway –– reasoning the court dismissed, since mining on public land is not guaranteed, especially when environmental impacts are involved. After 18 years, the swap is still hobbling along. The BLM is amending its environmental study of the deal in another attempt to get it through.
Underscoring this deeper bureaucratic and judicial scrutiny is citizen involvement, says Vicky Wessling, national land-adjustment program manager for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 'I have seen a significant change in public interest and response to federal actions due to mass media.' Comment periods for NEPA have not changed, for example, but the number of comments has increased with a more informed local public, says Wessling.
Recent exchanges do show signs of providing greater public benefit. The Nature Conservancy is trying to consolidate checker-boarded grassland and protect black-footed ferret habitat in South Dakota through a swap with the Forest Service. In California, Poe's group is orchestrating a deal in which the Forest Service will receive about 1,550 acres of intact forest for giving 20 acres of national forest to a ski resort that's leased it since 1954. Residents of Colorado's Garfield and Pitkin counties, meanwhile, are circulating a petition on SignOn.org to stop the trading of public land that isn't already listed for disposal. These days, says Blaeloch, 'the Lochsa trade is sort of an anomaly. It's very reminiscent of the trades we were looking at in the beginning.'
Objections to the Lochsa deal are numerous; 83 percent of Idaho County, which contains Western Pacific's land, is public land already, so losing more private land angers local politicians and their anti-government constituents. An option to trade land from the Clearwater's Palouse District, 200 miles west of the Lochsa, has drawn protest from a group of retired rangers, who resent giving a timber company land they once managed for wildlife habitat. 'We've got cougars, turkeys, quail, you name it –– this district should be a shining example to educate people of what the Forest Service is capable of doing. That's why we got into it. We love this land,' says retired forester John Krebs.
Swap critics have been quick to take advantage of technology. Ray Payton of Riggins, Idaho, who is fighting to keep nearby woods from the bartering table, funds a website for documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. He also provides instructions for submitting comments to state legislators, county commissioners and the Forest Service.
Such efforts have borne fruit. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation withdrew support from the Lochsa exchange last December after protest from its Idaho members over the loss of prime elk habitat.
And Western Pacific has had to make concessions. After its Payette proposal was rejected, it approached the Idaho Panhandle National Forest about land around Lake Pend Oreille and was again spurned for the sake of the 'public's interest.' The Clearwater National Forest, however, still favored some kind of deal and began to consider other options. 'We had the opportunity to acquire some very high-value public lands,' says then-Supervisor Tom Reilly.
Finally, the Clearwater came up with five alternatives. Its preferred one would trade around 14,000 acres of the Clearwater, Nez Perce and Idaho Panhandle forests, accompanied by a cash payment to Western Pacific from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. But that still upsets Idaho County, so officials floated a sixth option that would trade Western Pacific an equal amount of land within Idaho County. Meanwhile, the company offered to give up development rights on the land it would receive to appease Payton and other locals. 'If people have this fear of Western Pacific Timber for whatever reason, we like to roll up our sleeves and address it,' says General Counsel Andy Hawes. 'We've got kind of a plan B, but we just want to be in the timber business in Idaho.'
The deal continues to unfold in its unpredictable, tragicomic way. If current Clearwater Supervisor Rick Brazell selects the Idaho County option, it will further delay the process. The private land involved in the acre-for-acre exchange is far less valuable than the timber-rich national forest land it would be swapped for, making it illegal to process administratively; only Congress would have the power to give it final approval. If it gets that far and still doesn't work out, says Hawes, 'then we can honestly say we gave it our best shot.'