Environment: Pssst, Mr. President, Have I Got a Parcel for You

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
News from the Field, December 1996

Environment: Pssst, Mr. President, Have I Got a Parcel for You

With wilderness to be saved and the coffers closed, the feds start swapping
By John Brinkley

After country-rock crooner Bonnie Raitt and more than 1,000 others were arrested last September during a protest against salvage logging in northern California's Headwaters Forest, she drew headlines, many of those arrested drew fines--and the owner of the contested property drew what amounted to a timber baron's lottery ticket: an offer from the federal government to hand over $380 million in land, cash, and other assets in exchange for 7,500 acres of old-growth holdings.

Charles Hurwitz accepted. And with that, he became the latest poster boy for the increasingly active--and increasingly controversial--federal conservation initiative commonly known as land swapping, which over the past few months has preserved some of the nation's most cherished landscapes, provided Bill Clinton with some valuable election-year photo ops, and caused critics to charge that the government has cozied up with a few rather unscrupulous bedfellows.

Land swaps, of course, are nothing new. For decades the Interior Department has attempted to protect ecologically valuable land by offering its owners property of equal value. But the program has been accelerating dramatically--largely because the government has run out of money to buy land outright. "We're dependent upon Congress for land-acquisition money, and the long-term trend has been down," says John Leshy, the Interior Department's solicitor. "And it's trending, frankly, toward zero."

Not that such money doesn't exist. In 1965, Congress established the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which earmarks royalties from offshore drilling operations for the purchase of environmentally sensitive land. The fund contains nearly $10 billion, but to help offset deficit spending in the federal budget, Congress agreed to free up only $109 million this year. "If you don't have acquisition money and you identify lands that are not in federal ownership but ought to be," Leshy says, "land exchanges are about the only way to do it."

Which, since August, has meant a flurry of high-profile swapping, agreements that have to some degree settled long-contested environmental tussles and at the same time have allowed the administration to put its greenest face forward. Shortly after the Headwaters deal was proposed, for instance, Clinton traveled to Yellowstone National Park to announce that he'd saved its hallowed ecosystem by agreeing to give Crown Butte Mines Inc. $64 million in federal property holdings. (At press time, the exact land to be swapped had not been specified.) In exchange, the company agreed not to develop an enormous gold mine just outside the park's gates. Then, just five weeks later, the president was at it again: With his desk posed on the rim of the Grand Canyon, he designated 1.7 million acres of Utah's breathtaking red-rock canyon country a national monument. By agreeing to provide PacifiCorp, a mining company that held coal leases on some 18,000 acres in the area, with equivalent parcels of yet-to-be-named government land, he was able to keep one of the state's grandest wildernesses--a portion of which had been threatened under the notorious Utah Public Lands Management Act--out of the clutches of its development-happy congressional delegation.

PacifiCorp was certainly amenable to the deal--though not out of altruism. "It was a business decision," says Kevin Lynch, PacifiCorp's manager of federal affairs, "not an environmental policy choice."

Indeed, it's exactly this kind of realpolitik that leaves many environmentalists wary. "Land exchanges, where they can work out, are great," says Liz Boussard, a program director for the Wilderness Society. "But only if you don't trade one problem for another." For example, she says, last year the feds tried to stop development on a New Jersey watershed by offering its owner grasslands in Oklahoma--which turned out to be essential habitat for migratory birds. But because environmentalists in the Sooner State objected, the deal disintegrated.

Perhaps the greatest criticism of land swapping, however, is that the beneficiaries tend to be seen as environmental scoundrels. For instance, there's developer Tom Chapman, who bought 240 acres in Colorado's West Elk Wilderness in 1989. Chapman informed the Forest Service that he was going to build six million-dollar homes on the site--and promptly started flying in building materials. The government, desperate to stop construction, offered Chapman 107 acres near the Telluride ski area, supposedly worth $640,000. Chapman graciously accepted, later parceling up the land and selling it for $4.2 million. Similarly Hurwitz, who still faces more than $250 million in claims for the role his Maxxam Corporation played in the 1988 collapse of a Texas savings and loan, was perfectly content to start logging Headwaters's prized Elk Head Springs, home to many of the world's oldest and tallest trees, and also to such endangered fauna as the marbled murrelet, the coho salmon, and the northern spotted owl--leaving the feds no choice but to intervene. But the agreement still allows limited-scale logging on the remaining 55,000 Headwaters acres still owned by Maxxam.

To call such trades extortion "is a fair characterization of what's happening in some of these cases," admits Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. Yet, he says, it appears the government has little choice--particularly if the 105th Congress proves as stingy as its predecessor. "In this deficit-reduction atmosphere," Babbitt says, "it's as predictable as sunrise" that legislators will reduce land-purchase funding next term. So does that mean the government will continue to hawk its property, even if it means getting taken by the next wave of Hurwitzes and Chapmans? Unfortunately, says Babbitt, "There isn't a better solution. As long as a person is exercising his rights as a property owner, however lamentable the result, that's something you have to deal with."

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