Corruption Rife in Land Deals
Activists Call for Moratorium on Land "Exchanges"
by Steve HolmerThe Western Land Exchange Project and other groups have called on Forest Service Chief Michael Dombeck to impose an immediate moratorium on land exchanges between the agency and private parties. Federal land management agencies engage in over 300 land exchanges every year, including several large-scale trades with timber corporations.
Problems with the land exchanges include routine swaps of public forest for private clearcuts and roaded lands, the Forest Service is already $10 billion behind in forest road maintenance and repair, and the public is losing millions of dollars in the exchanges because the public lands are undervalued and the private lands are overvalued. "Acting too late or too slowly to bring reform to this process will result in continuing erosion of public confidence, the potential loss of many more millions of dollars, and irreparable damage to ecosystems," said Janine Blaeloch of the Western Land Exchange Project.
USDA INVESTIGATING LAND EXCHANGE PROGRAM
In an attempt to reform the land exchange program federal agencies are conducting an investigation. The USDA has conducted audits of land trades in Nevada and reviewed the Huckleberry Land Exchange in Washington. The USDA is also conducting audits in California and the Southwest. Forest Service investigators are looking into exchanges made through third party organizations, such as the Trust for Public Land. These groups buy land low, sell it back to the government at market price, and then use the difference to buy more land or make a profit. Jim Lyons oversees the Forest Service for the Department of Agriculture and he has ordered all third-party-brokered land deals worth more than $250,000 to be reviewed by a national oversight team. "We need to regain control," said Lyons.
The Huckleberry land exchange in Washington was one of the exchanges reviewed. The trade of 4,300 acres on Huckleberry Mountain for 30,000 acres on Weyerhaeuser land was completed in March. The trade eliminated the messy, checkerboard pattern of ownership between private timber companies and the government. The Forest Service appraised each side's land at $45.5 million.
However, Roy Keene, a commercial timber consultant, was suspicious of the exchange and found that the value given for the Forest Service land was much too low and the value of Weyerhauser's land was much too high. "Nearly 20,000 acres of it was low site...with an unrealistic value put on it - about three times what it should have been," Keene said. The deal had already been approved by the time Keene called attention to it because the Forest Service keeps appraisals quiet until trades are completed.
The most detailed analysis was done by an independent forestry consultant Kelly Niemi, who reviewed the appraisal and a Weyerhaeuser report on site quality and tree-stocking levels. Niemi and other forestry experts found that the appraisal failed to account for the poor quality of Weyerhaeuser's land. These discrepancies result in a multi-million dollar break for Weyerhaeuser at the expense of taxpayers.
The I-90 land exchange was has been approved as part of the Omnibus spending bill. One problem with the I-90 land exchange is that it was pushed through with legislation supported by Sen. Slade Gorton (R-WA) rather than going through the normal administrative process. The exchange would trade about 17,000 acres of National Forest for 60,000 acres of Plum Creek Timber Company lands. The exchange is opposed by many environmental groups, including American Lands, because legislating land exchanges excludes fair public review and questions remain about the fairness of this deal. In past years a number of bad land exchanges were legislated which would not have passed public scrutiny.
Disapproval with Forest Service land exchange policies has been demonstrated in public action. In Crested Butte, Colorado, three groups appealed the Upper Gunnison Basin Land Exchange. While they were waiting for the Forest Service decision, the groups negotiated a favorable settlement with the Crested Butte Mountain Resort and withdrew their appeals. "While we are content with the agreement we reached with CBMR, we are extremely disappointed with the Forest Service land exchange process," said Sandy Shea, High Country Citizens Alliance Public Lands Coordinator. "The agency should be embarrassed by this community's efforts to protect the public interest."
LAND SWAP CANCELED
In a victory for conservationists, the Forest Service has pulled the plug on the Spur Cross Land swap in Arizona, reports the Arizona Republic. The Forest Service was in favor of saving Spur Cross Ranch where a housing development is planned, "but not to the extent that a proposal requires carte blanche commitment of large blocks of lands or assets." The swap was meant to preserve the ranch, while allowing developer John Lang to build on national forest land near Scottsdale, but it evolved into a complex series of land exchanges. Concerns about the exchange included how the state Land Department would be compensated and whether the trade would skirt environmental laws.
In central Oregon three environmental organizations recently filed suit against the Forest Service to halt the Crown Pacific Land Exchange Project. The trade violates the National Environmental Policy act because the Forest Service failed to consider a full range of alternatives, it would result in a net loss for the public of 3,300 acres of old forest, and the public would be responsible for restoring lands abused by the corporation s intensive logging practices. "No one -- not the general public, not the EPA, and not the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife -- accepted Crown's and the Forest Service's word that this exchange was in the best interest of the public," said Scott Silver of Wild Wilderness. "The exchange is both illegal and intolerable."
Please contact Chief Dombeck at USFS, Washington, D.C. 20250, 202/205-1661, 205-1765 fax, and urge him to place a moratorium on land exchanges and the transfer of deeds in current exchanges until the Forest Service launches a full review of land- trade proposals to determine whether they are being conducted legally.
Steve Holmer works for American Lands, formerly the Western Ancient Forest Campaign. They can be reached at email@example.com
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