Watching land swaps in Idaho and the West

  • Checkerboard parcels in the Upper Lochsa area of the Clearwater National Forest could be swapped.

    U.S. Forest Service
 

For Western Pacific Timber and its then-President and CEO Tim Blixseth, the spring of 2006 promised big business. The company had recently purchased 39,371 acres in the Clearwater National Forest in the Upper Lochsa, on the Idaho-Montana border. The Lewis and Clark trail winds through here, and the rivers and woods are home to threatened steelhead, bull trout and Canada lynx. Foresters and conservationists had wanted to consolidate ownership of the checker-boarded territory for years, and Blixseth knew it.

So he gathered a handful of Forest Service managers in a corner office of Western Pacific's Boise high-rise and offered to exchange the Upper Lochsa for part of the Payette National Forest around McCall, a popular Idaho ski town.

Blixseth had reason to be optimistic. In the early 1990s, he and his partners threatened development and ultimately traded 101,000 private acres north of Yellowstone National Park for $25 million and 47,000 public acres of prime Montana timberland. Blixseth made tens of millions of dollars from subsequent timber and land sales and used a portion to build the Yellowstone Club, an exclusive resort that he later lost in a divorce.

But the climate for such swaps has changed since the early days. In the '80s and '90s, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management lost money and crucial habitat in major land exchanges that favored private parties. Agencies are required to ensure that transactions 'serve the public interest,' with the new land's value at least equal to that of the land exchanged. But the statutes are ambiguous, and speculators can make huge profits from swaps; Tom Chapman, a notorious Colorado developer, made millions this way. Increased scrutiny from both the government and the public over the last decade has forced the feds to get better at vetting deals, and it's pushed those who initiate them to come up with more favorable proposals.

Now, six years later, Western Pacific is still slogging through the federal review process. Payette managers rejected its initial proposal, saying it didn't serve the public interest, and the company's had a hard time convincing people that it's a good idea to trade locally cherished hunting and fishing grounds for land elsewhere in the state. A final decision is expected in November but will probably be delayed. The era of easy land exchanges appears to be over.

'There's concern about giving up public lands because they're so important,' says Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. 'The public doesn't want to give up any part of the national forest even if there's strong acreage to gain.'

Large businesses or private landowners initiate most swaps to improve access, acquire property leased from the government, or simply consolidate holdings. Exchanges can be conducted through the local office of the relevant federal land agency, or through legislation. Administrative swaps are subject to the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires officials to review environmental impacts and allow public input. The legislative route rarely circumvents those hoops and doesn't necessarily speed up deals. Proponents draft a bill, find a congressional sponsor and hope for a favorable vote in D.C. But exchanges can be controversial, and politicians are often reluctant to sign on.

Swaps started getting stickier in 2000, when the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congress' nonpartisan research arm, released a fiercely critical report. It discovered that although the Forest Service was getting more acres than it gave away, those acres were worth about half as much as the land exchanged. The BLM also traded for less valuable private parcels, and sometimes ignored the findings of its chief appraiser. In three 1998 exchanges, the agency acquired land in Nevada that was overvalued by $8.8 million. The GAO even found one private party who acquired federal lands and quickly sold them for two and six times more than their government-assessed value. The GAO concluded sternly, 'Congress may wish to consider directing both agencies to discontinue their land exchange programs.'

'For the most part, I think people were less aware that these deals were happening,' says Janine Blaeloch, founder and director of the Western Lands Project, a nonprofit that watchdogs land exchanges. The agencies 'treated these as real estate transactions, and even though they were supposed to follow NEPA, (private parties) were able to take advantage because nobody really paid attention to them.'

High Country News Classifieds
  • NEWS DIRECTOR
    Based in the state capitol, Boise State Public Radio is the premier NPR affiliate in Idaho. With 18 transmitters and translators, it reaches 2/3rds of...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home... this is the one.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR MOJAVE DESERT LAND TRUST
    Organization Background: The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, founded in 2006. Our mission is to protect the ecosystems of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is accepting applications for an Executive Director. This position will provide leadership to RSA, develop a fund raising plan, and effectively communicate...
  • WRITING PLACE: THE ANIMAS RIVER REGION WRITING WORKSHOP
    REGISTER ONLINE BY: Friday, June 15 WHERE: Durango, CO (location TBD) WHEN: Monday, July 16 Youth workshop: 10 a.m. - 12 p.m. (18 and under,...
  • EQUITY IN THE OUTDOORS COORDINATOR
    The Equity in the Outdoors Coordinator will lead community engagement, program implementation and development, and data collection for the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement (EVOM). EVOM...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a personable individual who is passionate about conservation to join our Sandpoint Field Office. The Community Engagement Assistant will...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION INTERN/ASSISTANT
    Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATIVE MEDIA SERVICES
    In-depth investigations of polluters, lobbyists, regulators, elected officials and others focused on environmentally damaging projects in the U.S. and internationally. We specialize in mining projects,...
  • UNDEVELOPED 40 ACRES - SOUTHWEST COLORADO
    in beautiful Montezuma County.
  • TRUCK DRIVER
    Class A & B drivers, pass all DOT requirements and clean driving record
  • MARIA'S BOOKSHOP FOR SALE
    - Thriving Indie bookstore in the heart of Durango, Colorado. General bookstore with 34-year history as a community hub for Southwest region of CO. 1800...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    HawkWatch International seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our awesome team! This position will provide support in all aspects of the department. We are looking...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    will develop and execute Wild Utah Projects fundraising plan. Call, email or check full description of job online for more details: