For decades, the federal government has enacted land exchanges with private parties to consolidate ownership of public lands. These transactions have gone on largely on the periphery of public awareness. Land swaps sometimes result in benefits to the public, such as where inholdings interfere with management of surrounding federal lands. Increasingly, however, exchanges involve the trade of thousands of acres of public land containing valuable timber and habitat for private forest and range lands that are ecologically damaged. Scores of land exchanges are sweeping the western states
The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are facilitating a massive corporate land grab in the name of the "public interest", and private timber, mining, and development interests are reaping the benefits.
A growing number of land exchanges are being proposed as a solution to the "checkerboard problem". Wishing to consolidate its ownership of the railroad checkerboard lands, the Forest Service is offering up public lands in one area for corporate lands elsewhere. On a map, this works. On the ground, the agency is trading valuable habitat and uncut forest out of the public domain—and in some cases getting corporate stumps in return.
the second land grant
In the 19th century, railroad corporations grabbed nearly ten percent of the continental U.S. by fraud and malfeasance. Since then, the railroads’ corporate heirs have been stripping the odd-numbered sections of trees and minerals. Now, they’re coming back for the even-numbered sections in what amounts to a second grant of public lands: land swaps.
The very concept of exchanging federal lands for privately-owned checkerboards is highly debatable, considering the unique history and status of these lands. Congress reserved the right to "add to, alter, amend or repeal" the land grant statutes in order to protect the public interest, and thus has the authority to exercise control over management of the grant lands without the necessity of trading. Unfortunately, Congress has failed to use this authority.
The Huckleberry Land Exchange
In Washington’s Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, the Huckleberry Land Exchange between the Forest Service and Weyerhaeuser illustrates some of the problems with land exchange policy.
On the surface, the trade sounds like a good deal for the public: we trade a mere 4500 acres of forest on Huckleberry Mountain for 30,000 acres of Weyerhaeuser land. But the public lands in the trade comprise the last intact forest on the mountain. If the Forest Service retained rather than traded these lands, it would cut only 264 acres per decade. Weyerhaeuser has stated that it intends to cut all of the timber within ten years—accelerating the liquidation of Huckleberry Mountain by more than 15 times.
On the other side of the exchange, 90 percent of the land the public will receive has been clear-cut. As part of the trade, the public would assume the costs of restoring the lands damaged by the corporation and of obliterating most of the 236 miles of roads left by the company.
Existing laws and regulations require that land exchanges achieve equal value for both parties. But land managers hide the timber and land values behind the veil of "proprietary information", and it is not until after an exchange is implemented that the values of the properties are disclosed to the public. Even considering the acreage being traded, the amount and quality of timber Weyerhaeuser would receive in the Huckleberry exchange is such that the company is expected to realize a huge profit from the deal. In May 1997, federal lawsuits were filed against the swap by Huckleberry Mountain Protection Society, Pilchuck Audubon Society, and the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, charging numerous violations of land exchange laws and regulations.
Plum Creek Timber, another railroad land grant checkerboard owner, is proposing the I-90 Exchange, a swap with the Forest Service that would give the public about 40,000 acres of land near the Alpine Lakes Wilderness for a like amount of public land in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie, Gifford Pinchot, and Wenatchee National Forests. The Forest Service and some environmental groups tout the exchange as an opportunity to provide habitat connectivity in the highly-fragmented landscape south of the Wilderness. But, as with any land exchange, the deal entails the creation of sacrifice zones, including scarce, low-elevation old growth in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and the 6,000-acre Kelly Butte roadless area at the head of the Green River.
The railroad land grant checkerboard lands provide some of the most egregious examples of land swaps, but large-scale trades are taking place all over the West. These deals are usually initiated by private interests reaching for public resources, and the Clinton Administration and public lands agencies have offered nothing but encouragement. Between the Forest Service and the BLM, about 200 land swaps take place every year in the U.S. Some involve very small amounts of land, but a growing number of them involve tens of thousands of acres apiece.
Here are some examples of recently completed or currently contemplated land swaps:
This exchange was legislated in the Omnibus Parks Bill of 1996. Weyerhaeuser traded 181,000 acres of forested wetlands and cut-over forest lands for 48,000 acres of highly-productive pine forest in the Ouachita National Forest and other areas. Replanted Weyerhaeuser lands going to the public had been converted to non-native loblolly pine. Weyerhaeuser retained mineral, oil, and gas interests on 133,000 acres that it traded. Environmental analysis and public involvement requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) were waived by Congress. Attempts by citizens to monitor and intervene were ignored.
Land swaps in both states are being brokered by Clearwater Land Exchange (CLE), a firm in Orofino, Idaho. An exchange in northeast Washington was just completed despite legal challenges by the Kettle Range Conservation Group and Inland Empire Public Lands Council. About 25,000 acres of overgrazed shrub-steppe in private ownership were traded for 4500 acres of public land—much of it old-growth Ponderosa pine, recognized as an endangered plant community. Continued grazing is guaranteed for the next ten years on lands the public acquired.
Opponents conducted a detailed economic analysis of the exchange and estimated a net profit of more than $10 million to Boise Cascade, the eventual owner of the public lands included in the exchange.
CLE is also brokering a 75,000-acre swap in northeastern Oregon between the BLM and Louisiana Pacific involving overgrazed range lands and old-growth Ponderosa pine.
This swap was initiated at the request of the Montana congressional delegation under the Gallatin Range Consolidation and Protection Act of 1992. The private party to this trade is Big Sky Lumber, which owns railroad land grant checkerboards purchased from Plum Creek Timber in the Gallatin National Forest. In the first phase of the Act, 45,800 acres of BSL’s land were traded for or purchased by the public. The current proposal encompasses about 54,000 acres of BSL land, and 28,000 acres of public land plus 50 million boardfeet of public timber.
Most of BSL’s lands have been subdivided into 20-acre parcels and the company is threatening commercial development if the trade isn’t completed by December 31, 1997. The company’s lands have been offered contingent upon the Forest Service waiving NEPA procedure. Half or more of BSL’s lands have been recently cut-over—some were acquired in the 1993 exchanges, were subsequently clear-cut, and are now offered back to the public sans trees. Where trees do remain on land going to the public, the company proposes to retain timber ownership.
President Clinton designated this new national monument in September 1996. The state vehemently opposed protection of the area, in which it owns numerous inholdings and school trust lands that generate income through coal and oil leases. The federal government proposes that state inholdings be traded for federal assets elsewhere.
Andalex, a Dutch corporation, had planned to extract three million tons per year of coal from mining claims it holds within the Monument, and these claims are proposed to be swapped for other federal coal leases or revenue.
Conoco (a subsidiary of DuPont) has obtained permits for exploratory oil drilling on state lands inside the Monument where previous drilling has come up dry. Conoco acquired its oil leases after the Monument was established, leading many to believe that the company is leveraging for a buyout or exchange to acquire more productive lands.
Congress promises more than $200 million from the federal Land & Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) to purchase 7500 acres of old-growth redwood forest in northern California owned by Pacific Lumber.
Pacific Lumber was bought in a hostile mid-1980s takeover by the Maxxam Corporation, run by junk bond magnate Charles Hurwitz. Hurwitz is currently being sued for $250 million by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation for the bailout of his failed savings and loan bank (for a total of $1.6 billion). Some California environmental groups have been pushing a debt-for-nature swap in which Hurwitz’ debt to the U.S would be retired if Pacific Lumber’s lands (totaling about 60,000 acres) were given to the public.
Not all exchange proposals have been dropped. Non-old-growth areas owned by Pacific Lumber may be acquired through trades of state and federal lands.
The Department of the Interior is promoting a swap to gain acreage for a 330,000 acre expansion of Fort Irwin for tank maneuvers. The Fort originally looked at expanding to the east toward the Mojave National Preserve, but is now considering going south by trading for lands owned by Catellus Development Corporation, a spin-off of the land grant-based Southern Pacific Railroad.
Exchanges of national forest lands in Montana and other states were proposed in order to acquire the New World Mine site near Yellowstone and stop a gold-mining proposal that threatened the Park. Greater Yellowstone Coalition and others had sued Crown Butte Mining but entered into settlement negotiations with the company at the encouragement of the Administration. An "environmentally benign" exchange (i.e., trading developed federal lands or buildings) was pursued for a while, until no suitable properties could be found. At one point, Plum Creek Timber stepped in, offering to buy federal timber lands in Montana so the government could use the cash to buy the mine site. In May, Congress agreed to set aside $65 million to purchase the New World site with LWCF funds.
ASARCO has 132 patented mining claims in national forest lands in an area called Rosemont Ranch, 35 miles southeast of Tucson, in the Santa Rita Mountains. In order to avoid the EIS process and reclamation requirements associated with mining on public lands, the company wants to acquire 13,000 acres in the area of their claims and is offering 2,200 acres in scattered parcels throughout Arizona, ranging in size from 1 acre to 520 acres. The lands are national forest inholdings of various habitat types. ASARCO acquired the parcels from Anamax, another mining company that originally designed the exchange.
The land to go to ASARCO is an important wildlife corridor between the Huachuca, Santa Rita, and Catalina Mountains, and in recognition of that, the BLM has been consolidating its holdings adjacent to the national forest. ASARCO would use only about half of the land to accommodate an open pit mine 1,000 feet deep, 1.5 miles long and a mile wide, and has stated it needs the remaining land for "ancillary operations" and a "buffer". However, development has occurred within two miles of the site ASARCO wants, and local activists believe the company’s long-range plans are to follow the mining operations with residential and commercial development in the area outside the mine pit.
In 1990, Sun Valley Corporation wanted to expand its Snow Basin ski resort onto adjacent lands in the Wasatch-Cache National Forest. The corporation’s request for 1,320 acres of federal land to support events for the 2002 Olympic Games was denied by the Forest Supervisor because of the sensitivity of the lands. However, after Salt Lake City won the right to host the Games, Sun Valley got Utah Congressman Jim Hansen to sponsor the Snow Basin Land Exchange Act, giving Sun Valley the desired 1,320 acres in exchange for 4,100 acres elsewhere in northern Utah. NEPA requirements for environmental analysis and public involvement are waived, and no administrative or judicial review is allowed.
Seneca Jones Timber Co., Weyerhaeuser, and International Paper are conducting a study partially funded by the public for a series of land exchanges in the Umpqua watershed to trade streamside private holdings for other forest lands in the basin. The timber companies assert that they should be given lands they can log if they are going to be restricted on their own lands by laws protecting salmon and trout.
The study, for which Congress allocated $945,000, is looking at 98,000 acres, but proponents hope to consider the entire 3 million acre watershed for possible swaps. The USFS and BLM are supervising the study, with a 17-member policy committee consisting of 9 industry or pro-industry reps, agency staff, and some conservationists.
Public Lands as Trade Stock
All across the western landscape, land exchanges projects are defying environmental laws, giving irreplaceable assets to business interests, creating illegal, money-losing deals, and treating diverse public lands as "trade stock".
The Western Land Exchange Project is conducting in-depth research on this issue and working to increase public involvement. Updates on land swap proposals and policies will appear in later issues of Railroads & Clearcuts News.
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