Court nixes land exchange

  In a surprise May 19 ruling, a federal appeals court sent a land exchange in western Washington back to the drawing board. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the controversial Huckleberry Land Exchange needed more study and told company loggers to stop cutting the traded land. The exchange gave Weyerhaeuser Co. 4,300 acres of public land on Huckleberry Mountain in return for 30,000 acres of company holdings (HCN, 3/29/99).

The Pilchuck Audubon Society, Huckleberry Mountain Protection Society, and the Muckleshoot Indian tribe had sued to halt the exchange, arguing that the Forest Service's analysis was one-sided. Their suit was denied late in 1997, and the trade was completed last spring, before an appeal could be heard.

Later that year, independent appraisers found that the public had lost at least $10 million on the trade because the exchange's values had been skewed in favor of Weyerhaeuser. Janine Blaeloch, director of the Western Land Exchange Project, says that 90 percent of the lands the public got were either cut over or too high and rocky to grow trees. The appeals court has now frozen the trade until the Forest Service studies the ecological effect of giving one of western Washington's last native forests to a timber company, presents a wider range of alternatives and acknowledges the combined impact of this trade and the nearby Interstate 90 exchange with Plum Creek Timber Company.

The ruling may be the first time a land swap has ever been suspended after the deeds had changed hands. Blaeloch thinks the decision will substantially affect the NEPA process for future land exchanges. "This may be the happiest day of my life," she said.

*Lynne Bama
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