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Giving the West Away.

Back in early days of Reagantime, Interior Secretary James Watt hatched a dark fantasy to sell off millions of acres of public forest and parklands to private corporations. When this scheme leaked out to the press, it was met with howls of derision, and Watt was vilified even by members of his own party.

Under the magic spell of the "winwin" solution, the Clinton Administration took that idea to heights undreamed of by Watt and his cronies. It began early on as a way to appease Republicans and tackle the federal debt, which had become an obsession of the bond market aficionados who were running economic policy in the Clinton White House.

In the past five years, more than 1.5 million acres have been traded away in hundreds of swaps. Another million acres in trades are awaiting completion. And some of the deals have been particularly lopsided.

At the request of Representative George Miller, the Democrat from California, the General Accounting Office (GAO) launched an investigation in 1999 of how the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Forest Service had been administering their land exchange programs. After reviewing hundreds of transactions, the GAO concluded that both programs were so corrupt that an immediate moratorium on the swaps should be put in place and that a Congressional investigation should be opened into improprieties committed by both agencies.

The GAO auditors found that most of the land exchanges favored private parties at the expense of the government and the environment. In many instances, the BLM and the Forest Service failed to demonstrate that any public interest would be served by the exchanges often. And the government often received impoverished land in exchange for top-notch habitat that would later be developed, clear-cut, or mined.

The BLM came in for particularly sharp criticism. The GAO investigators noted with amazement that the Bureau's accounting system didn't keep track of the value of the land exchanges, making it impossible to determine whether the deals were legal. But an analysis of some individual deals, especially in the state of Nevada, reveal the cozy relationship between agency land managers and private developers.

In one exchange--which was noted in the files but not identified--the BLM traded to a real estate broker seventy acres of private land valued by agency appraisers at $763,000. Later that same day, the broker sold the same tract to a Nevada developer for $4.6 million. That broker also made a killing on another BLM land swap. In this exchange, the broker acquired forty acres of public land from the BLM at a value of $504,000 and sold it the same day for $1 million.

These sweetheart deals are the rule, not the exception. The GAO called on the BLM to "immediately discontinue buying and selling land under its land exchange program and conduct an audit of financial records associated with the sales and purchases."

The Forest Service's record isn't any better. Over the past ten years, the agency has conducted more than 1,265 exchanges involving more than 950 square miles of land valued at more than $1 billion. But the GAO audit found that this was rarely a good deal for the government. "On average in an exchange, the Service acquired nonfederal land that was valued at about $780 per acre and conveyed federal land that was valued at about $1,415.In other words, even by the Forest Service's own, often slanted, accounting system, the government was trading away lands that were nearly twice as valuable as those they were getting in return.

"Basically, the Forest Service was trading prime old-growth forest for lands that had already been clear-cut," says Larry Tuttle, director of the Center for Environmental Equity, based in Portland, Oregon. "The agency is still controlled by timber beasts. They want to see these big trees cut, and federal laws prohibit them from doing it. So they simply trade them off for lands that have already been logged over."

The West Utah land exchange is a particularly noxious affair. In this massive deal, the Interior Department last year acquired toxic lands near the Dugway Proving Grounds (a chemical weapons testing site) and surrendered land near the entrance to Zion National Park, where two golf courses will be carved into one of the most scenic spots on Earth.

"When we started looking into these land swaps in the mid-nineties, nobody knew much about them, and many enviros assumed they were benign transactions," says Janine Blaeloch, director of the Western Land Exchange Project, a Seattlebased outfit that is one of the few environmental groups paying attention to this spasm of land trading. "So we started asking questions: How did they get chosen? Who makes the decisions? What are the ecological consequences? The answers we found were pretty ugly."

Blaeloch's unflinching approach has made her a lot of enemies inside the agencies, timber companies, and big environmental groups that have signed off on some of the deals. She says the worst is yet to come: "This is the future. I won't be surprised to see hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands traded away every year."

Both the Forest Service and BLM have kept the public in the dark about some of the most crucial aspects of the land swaps, particularly the appraisal process. Citing federal laws, such as the Privacy Act and the Trade Secrets Act, the agencies have refused to allow public interest groups to examine appraisal sheets until after the trades have been consummated. "It's often impossible to determine whether the deal is actually in the public interest or even in keeping with federal law until it's too late," says Blaeloch, whose group won a landmark Freedom of Information Act case last summer requiring the Forest Service to open its books on the Pacific Northwest.

For many environmentalists, trading off any public land is often seen as the equivalent of a museum putting a painting by Titian onto the scrap heap. "They aren't making any more land," says Tim Hermach of the Native Forest Council, based in Eugene, Oregon. "We need more land brought into the public domain, not less. There's no such thing as surplus public land. But the politicians have

seen an easy way out with these land swaps."

But some mainstream environmental groups defend the trades. "Of course, it's a kind of triage," says a staffer at the National Audubon Society. "And you're conflicted about it. But if you can save some imperiled habitat or low-elevation old growth, and you don't have to give up much, it's worth it, given the alternative."

The initial solicitation almost always comes from the private landowner, a sign that the current system rarely has ecological considerations at the forefront. In fact, many of the federal bureaucrats that run the land exchange programs for the Forest Service and the BLM are more concerned about expanding the federal land base than assessing the ecological or recreational value of the swaps. Thus, one Forest Service land exchange supervisor told the Seattle Times: "It's not the trees that matter, it's the land."

Many of these officials got their start as timber sale planners and were relocated to the real estate division after logging rates declined on the national forests in the wake of the spotted owl and salmon lawsuits of the early 1990s. "These guys might as well be real estate agents for the timber companies," says one Forest Service fisheries biologist working in Oregon. "They know where the remaining little pockets of old growth are located and are only too happy to help them get their hands on it."

Why the dramatic movement toward land exchanges in the past decade?

"Frankly, many of us don't like a lot of these exchanges, but we didn't have much choice," says a Forest Service biologist in Flagstaff. "Congress had cut the purse strings, and the only way to save some important habitat on private lands was to trade for it."

The private sector had its own incentives. In the 1970s and 1980s, the timber companies in the Pacific Northwest and northern Rocky Mountains, spurred on by high prices and a lucrative export market, went on a logging frenzy. By the end of the 1980s, most of the private lands had been cleared of mature trees. The companies were desperate for supplies and turned increasingly to the national forests. But there was a problem. Logging across the region had placed hundreds of old-growth-dependent species at risk of extinction, from the spotted owl and marbled murrelet to the Pacific fisher and coho salmon. The industry didn't want to deal with the environmental restrictions that went along with buying timber from the Forest Service. So it began proposing land exchanges instead.

"The big timber companies, such as Weyerhaeuser and Plum Creek, not only wanted the big trees from federal lands, they also wanted a free hand in how to log them," says Blaeloch. "And it's likely that after the timber companies log off the lands they get from the Forest Service they will turn around and try to trade them back for more old growth."

In fact, that has already happened in Montana. In 1992, the Gallatin Land Exchange saw the Forest Service trade away forest lands outside Bozeman and near Yellowstone National Park. Within four years, most of the acreage was clear-cut, and in 1998 many of them came back to the Forest Service in another land swap with the same company.

At the same time, in the Southwest, the demand for land was also high. The cities of the Southwest were booming: Las Vegas, Reno, Phoenix, Tucson, Santa Fe, and St. George, Utah. But the real estate barons confronted a problem. Many of these cities existed as islands surrounded by federal land, mostly under the control of the BLM. In Nevada, for example, more than 83 percent of the state is in federal ownership. In order to satiate the demand for new housing, the developers turned to the feds, offering land transactions that would make an arbitrageur blush with envy.

"The whole situation in Nevada is scandalous," says Blaeloch. "What you have are real estate brokers, BLM staffers, and big developers making these deals behind closed doors with a smile and a handshake."

In many cases, the appraisers for both the public and private lands are picked and paid for by the corporations. Not surprisingly, the GAO found, this scenario almost always favors the corporations at the expense of the federal treasury and the environment.

Sometimes even the environmental impact statements that evaluate the swaps are farmed out to the corporations that will reap the benefits of the trade. In September 1998 in Safford, Arizona, the BLM responded obligingly to the Phelps Dodge Corporation's request to expand its mammoth copper mine onto public lands adjacent to the Kneeling Nun National Monument. The BLM, saying that it was overworked, shunted the environmental impact statement off to a private contractor, whose fees were paid by Phelps Dodge. The mining company even kicked in money to pay the salaries of four BLM staffers who were overseeing the transaction. In this instance, the BLM approved a deal giving the mining company 20,600 acres of federal land for 4,000 acres of scrublands--a 5-to-1 ratio.

One of the land exchange program's biggest boosters was Clinton's Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, the former Arizona governor. And, it turns out, several firms close to Babbitt have been on the receiving end of federal land swaps. Prior to becoming Interior Secretary, Babbitt worked for the mega-law firm Steptoe and Johnson. One of Babbitt's clients in those days was Canyon Forest Village, a scheme to build a Disneyland-style resort outside Tusayan, Arizona, near the entrance to Grand Canyon National Park. But since that part of northern Arizona is almost all federally owned land, the project needed a land exchange to get off the ground. A complicated swap, which included private lands formerly owned by the Babbitt family ranch, was put together years later, with Babbitt ensconced at Interior.

This is not the only time Babbitt's former clients have benefited from a land trade. Babbitt also represented the Del Webb Company, the developers of Sun City and other planned communities and resorts in the Southwest. Del Webb was pursuing a project in the boomtown of Las Vegas. But nearly all of the available land in the Las Vegas valley is owned by the BLM. With Babbitt serving as one of its lawyers, Del Webb approached the BLM with a land swap scheme. At the time, the BLM considered it a low priority. However, soon after Babbitt became Interior Secretary, the Del Webb exchange was pushed to near the top of the priority list and was finally approved in 1998.

A D.C.-based group called Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility is providing legal representation to BLM appraiser whistleblowers. The organization opposes land exchanges "that are done improperly--at the expense of the public or for political payoffs," says Jeff Ruch, executive director. "Babbitt was horrible in this regard."

Babbitt, who refused to comment for this story, has said that land exchanges are a way of controlling growth in the West, trading off the increased sprawl in Phoenix, Tucson, and Las Vegas for the preservation of more remote wild lands.

Now that the Interior Department is under the control of Gale Norton, a graduate of the James Watt School of Environmental Pillage, we can expect a burst of land exchanges. One of Norton's top advisers is Terry Anderson, director of the Political Economy Research Center in Bozeman, which is a coven of free market environmentalists and veterans of the Sagebrush Rebellion. Anderson is a radical even among this crowd. He has argued that the federal government should sell off all public lands to the highest bidder (except military bases) and allow the bracing combat of "market forces" to settle, once and for all, how these lands are used.

This scenario may sound lunatic, but in 1994, Mike Dombeck, then-director of the BLM, proposed that the federal government could raise billions of dollars by selling off millions of acres of public land in Alaska. The proposal came in response to a request from President Clinton for each agency to develop ways to help trim the federal debt. Then, last year, the Clinton Administration's Office of Management and Budget placed a provision in the 2001 budget ordering the Forest Service to draft legislation that would give the agency authority to sell National Forest land in order to obtain other, "high-priority" land for the public.

Of course, any large-scale privatization effort could be political suicide. But the Babbitt gang has shown Norton the way out: privatization through land exchanges.

"All of this may get much worse during the next four years under Bush," predicts Larry Tuttle. "But they will certainly have to thank Clinton and Babbitt for showing them the way to do it."

Jeffrey St. Clair co-edits the political newsletter Counterpunch with Alexander Cockburn. St. Clair is the co-author of"Five Days That Shook the World: Seattle and Beyond" (torso, 2000), and "A Pocket Guide to Environmental Bad Guys" (Thunder) Mouth Press, 1999).
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Title Annotation:investigation into the administration of land exchange programs
Author:St. Clair, Jeffrey
Publication:The Progressive
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2001
Words:2526
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