Exchanging for public good


A 20-acre parcel of Forest Service land has been managed with special use permits at the base of Mammoth Mountain since 1954. It’s more a forest of development than a forest of conifers and aspen. There are two ski lifts, a snowmobile and snowcat rental service, parking lots, the Mammoth Mountain Inn and a hokey tourist restaurant called the Yodler all in close operation. The “forest” hotel services LA-metro customers who complain of compact parking, dated decor and a tired looking staff.

Mammoth Mountain Lodge wants to revitalize the area, but the regulations for reconstructing facilities on federally owned land makes it difficult, so they’ve proposed a land exchange: the Forest Service conveys that 20 acre parcel to them, and Mammoth Mountain Lodge pays a cadre of land trusts to convey roughly 1400 acres of scenic forest to the Forest Service.

Land trusts try and act as plugs against development. Using loans, they buy and rescue private land at risk of development with the intention to sell the land back to the federal government at a fair market value. If the government can’t afford the cost of buying, the land trusts try to broker land exchanges or a combination of land and cash.

A down economy has made the business of swapping federal land more favorable for such trusts.

It's often easier for trusts to simply purchase land and sell it to the feds, rather than embark upon an exchange like the one at Mammoth Mountain, which requires more detailed review. But over the last five years, the feds' main source of money to buy land from trusts, the Land Water and Conservation Fund (LWCF), was slashed 38 percent. This funding cut has caused land trusts to search for alternatives to payment, like exchanges.

“With a higher variability in the appropriation of funds (from LWCF), it adds some complexity in how much risk we’re taking on,” says Brent Handley, division transaction director for the Trust for Public Lands, a nationwide land trust. “When we’re acquiring lands, we’re borrowing funding from a number of sources. If the LWCF doesn’t materialize, our holding cost increases fairly significantly.”

Despite the shallow LWCF pool, land trusts have thrived over the last five years, acquiring 10 million acres nationwide. Handley says land exchanges allow his trust greater flexibility to convey lands out of their portfolio and into federal hands.

That means land trusts have an interest in seeing land exchanges run smoothly and efficiently. To do that, federal land agencies want to see that exchanges satisfy two criteria: they serve the public’s interest and the lands proposed for exchange are valued equally.

Still, Trust for Public Lands will sometimes try to avoid the difficulties of exchange by cobbling together multiple finance sources from counties or federal farmland conservation funds to avoid land exchange and expedite the transaction. Sometimes, though, that process is slow as well.

Adam Poe, president of Western Lands Group, a prominent and influential land acquisition consulting firm, says because of cuts to LWCF, land trusts have been more open to the gruel of federal land exchanges in recent years. But staffing cuts within land agencies have made it harder for Poe’s group to siphon their attention for such exchanges.

“Land exchanges are discretionary actions, so just because someone walks into (public lands agencies') offices with a great idea for exchanges doesn’t mean they’re obligated to do anything. They need something that’s worthwhile,” said Poe.

In Forest Service Region 2 for instance, which covers Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas, Poe says there used to be six field officers working on appraisals, a process that often rivals NEPA actions for the length of time it requires to complete. Now, the number of appraisers has been whittled down to two.

Right now, Congress is debating the highway bill that contains a $700 million appropriation for the LWCF. Poe predicts it will face severe cuts like the previous few years. Handley is a little more optimistic.

“We’re definitely working very hard back in Washington within our lobbying efforts to see that that appropriation goes through.”

Neil LaRubbio is an intern at High Country News.

Images courtesy Flickr users moominsean and Timothy Valentine.

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