A muckraker throws a well-aimed wrench

  • WATCHDOG: John Jolley

    Dave Bonner

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

In the end, Wyoming's self-appointed public-lands watchdog wasn't able to halt the "Big Trails' land swap atop the Bighorn Mountains. But his one-man battle against the controversial deal changed the way land exchanges are handled in the Cowboy State.

The watchdog is John Jolley, a nonpracticing attorney from Mills, Wyo., who publishes Grassroots Advocate, an old-fashioned muckraking paper devoted to public-lands accountability (HCN, 5/11/98). At first, he appeared the victor in a David-vs.-Goliath battle over whether the Bureau of Land Management overlooked a potential conflict of interest involving six ranchers who sought to acquire more than 6,900 acres of BLM lands.

The ranchers acted through their Casper-based facilitator, Great Western Land Exchange, which was created by two real estate agents. The Exchange secured approval in 1997 from the Worland, Wyo., BLM office to trade 2,379 acres of a privately owned ranch on the Middle Fork of the Powder River for scattered BLM range and canyonland holdings near Big Trails, Wyo.

Buried in the details of the exchange was a potential conflict of interest Jolley spotted: the identity of the appraiser.

Great Western Land Exchange, which would be paid by the BLM for brokering the exchange on behalf of the ranchers, named one of its own officers, certified Wyoming appraiser Neal Hilston, to conduct the appraisal.

Jolley charged that this was altogether too cozy and could lead to undervaluing the public lands or overvaluing the private lands to the advantage of the six ranchers. The facilitator, he also pointed out, would get paid by the BLM only if the swap went through.

The Wyoming state BLM director, Al Pierson, nevertheless approved the exchange and rejected Jolley's protest, arguing the appraiser did not have a conflict of interest because he was paid a flat fee for service and because his appraisal was reviewed and approved by a BLM appraiser.

Jolley won, however, on a subsequent appeal to the U.S. Interior Board of Land Appeals. The board threw out the Big Trails deal in July 1998, with the observation that the appraiser "cannot objectively be considered to be impartial."

Interior's Land Board ordered the Wyoming BLM to reappraise the lands and restart the swap, which the Bureau did late in 1998. The reappraisal differed only marginally from the original appraisal, and the Bureau subsequently approved the exchange, this time without protest.

But the legal wrangling that held up the deal for almost two years has led to changes in how land exchanges are handled by the BLM. In April 1998, then-BLM Director Pat Shea told the U.S. House Resources Committee that landowners proposing exchanges would have to select appraisers from a pre-approved list drawn up by the agency.

And Wyoming's BLM Bighorn Basin Resource Area, which shepherded the Big Trails deal to completion, last fall agreed that the next swap to come out of its office will employ competitive bidding from the public for the government lands slated for disposal, rather than disposal directly to the party proposing the deal.

The so-called "competitive swap" methodology is now being considered in other BLM districts in Wyoming.

Calling the introduction of competitive bidding into Wyoming land swaps a way "we can ... ensure that the public's interests are best served in each and every land exchange," Jolley has pledged to refrain from legal maneuvering to block any further swaps that employ publicly advertised bidding.

In making the commitment last fall, Jolley told BLM District Manager Darrell Barnes, "I am quite impressed by what I perceive is a 180-degree turnaround in the manner and methods used by your office in the new land-exchange proposal."

Jason Marsden is the new Washington, D.C., reporter for the Casper Star-Tribune.

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