Land swaps: the real story

  As one who makes a living on federal land exchanges and Land and Water Conservation Fund purchases, I was disappointed in Lynne Bama's story on land exchanges (HCN, 3/29/99).

Two exchanges which came in for heavy criticism in the article were the Huckleberry and Plum Creek exchanges in Washington state. The criticisms stemmed mainly from the allegations of Janine Blaeloch and her newly formed "environmental" group, the Western Land Exchange Project.

But the article failed to mention that the Huckleberry exchange was supported by the Sierra Club, Washington Environmental Council, Mountaineers, Mountains to Sounds Greenway, and almost a dozen other environmental groups, and resulted in net public gains of 6,000 acres of roadless land, 4,000 acres of uncut forest, 300 acres of ponds, streams and wetlands, and seven miles of river. When the exchange was challenged in court (and upheld in a December 1998 federal court ruling), the Sierra Club felt strongly enough about it to file an amicus brief in its support.

Likewise, the Plum Creek exchange will result in many environmental gains sought by mainstream environmentalists for more than 20 years. Contrary to Blaeloch's assertion that the Forest Service is mainly trading old growth for cut-over Plum Creek land, there will be a net gain of roughly 20,000 acres of roadless land in national forest ownership. That's a gain of over 30 square miles.

As for the Western Land Exchange Project and Janine Blaeloch (whom the paper calls "a one-woman truth squad'), their solution for acquiring private checkerboard lands is that the lands are being, and I quote, "illegally" held by industry, and that Congress should, therefore, "revest" the lands into public ownership by condemning and buying them. The House Interior Committee held a hearing on railroad land revestiture in 1979, and even the most liberal members in the then Democratic-controlled Congress dismissed the notion as outlandish. The reality is that checkerboard lands have been in private ownership for more than a century, and Congress is not in the habit of condemning land. So let's get real.

Blaeloch also told Congress and the Forest Service last summer that, and I quote, "no old growth or roadless lands should be transferred from Forest Service ownership." She then went on to attack the Forest Service's "latest fantasy of growing old growth from clear-cuts."

That is fine rhetoric. In a checkerboard landscape where private industry owns alternating square-mile blocks of land intermingled with national forest land, it is impossible to consolidate land without the government trading away some old growth and roadless land. It is also logical - not a "fantasy' - that cut-over land can regenerate and provide valuable fish and wildlife habitat in the future. So the choice is this: Either trade away some federal lands to achieve significant net gains in federal old growth and roadless land ownership, and larger, manageable blocks of solid federal ownership, or live with the checkerboard dilemma.

Pragmatic environmentalists realized many years ago that a permanent checkerboard scenario was unacceptable. They have helped engineer land exchanges which have enabled the designation of dozens of wilderness areas, including the Lee Metcalf and Rattlesnake wilderness areas in Montana, and the protection of key fish and wildlife habitat all across the Western landscape.

Having worked as counsel to the House Interior Committee for 10 years, I also find it ironic to hear Blaeloch's group criticize the legislative process as "leaving citizens in the dust." What citizens? Without exaggeration, it can be safely said that many of the biggest gains in wilderness, wild and scenic rivers, parks and other public-land battles have occurred precisely because environmental groups rejected deficient agency recommendations and persuaded Congress to do better.

Other thoughts:

Appraisals: The appraisal problems mentioned by Lynne Bama represent a small minority of cases. In most cases, private appraisers are selected from a pre-approved list drawn up by the agencies. The government must then review and approve all appraisals submitted to them. The review is performed by professional career appraisers in the agencies, and they have the final word. I agree with making basic appraisal data available to the public somewhat earlier in the process, but I doubt it will change things much. Very few members of the public, or citizen groups, have the technical training or expertise necessary to critique an appraisal.

Public Process: All land exchanges are required by law to be processed in public. This always includes public notification and opportunity for comment; reviews and clearances for threatened and endangered species, cultural and historic resources, wetlands and streams, hazardous materials; and a public appeal period. For larger exchanges, the agencies hold formal public meetings and prepare an EA or EIS under NEPA. To suggest that not enough public information is available is misleading.

Land and Water Conservation Fund: Congress desperately needs to beef up spending from the fund because there are a great many landowners who want to sell to Uncle Sam. However, most land exchanges arise from situations where landowners do not want to sell.

Andy Wiessner

Vail, Colorado

Andy Wiessner is a High Country News board member and public lands consultant for Western Land Group, Inc., of Denver, Colorado.

High Country News Classifieds