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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

National Land Swaps

Air Date: Week of

In the past year, President Clinton has been behind some high profile land deals. While they're not Arkansas real estate developments, these land deals have nevertheless been controversial. Jyl Hoyt of member station WSBX in Boise, Idaho explains how these national land swaps work, whom they benefit, and why some people vigorously oppose them.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. At a time of increasing development and tight Federal budgets, many say a good way to protect sensitive ecosystems is through land exchanges. During this past election season, President Bill Clinton made headlines with land swaps to protect parts of the Red Rock Wilderness in Utah, and to stop a planned gold mine just north of Yellowstone National Park. While some cheer this tactic, critics say such exchanges may still result in the loss of valuable ecosystems and public land. From member station KBSX in Boise, Idaho, Jyl Hoyt has our report.

(Woman: "You get one." Man: "One of these and, then we'll just get a copy of the quick claim." Woman: "Yeah." Man: "New landowners!")

HOYT: People celebrate a new land exchange at the Nature Conservancy office near Sun Valley, Idaho. As a result, Willow and Boulder Banks along Idaho's Big Wood River, where Ernest Hemingway once fished, are now protected from subdivision development. The deal went through after the nonprofit Nature Conservancy traded land it owned elsewhere for the private property along the river. The Nature Conservancy has been doing such land swaps all over the country since the late 1950s, but the model it developed has been taken to a whole new level.


CLINTON: As all of you know, today we are keeping faith with the future. I am about to sign a proclamation that will establish the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.

(Cheers and applause)

HOYT: This past September, while on the campaign trail, President Bill Clinton turned 1.7 million acres of majestic natural rock sculpture in southern Utah into a national monument. Most of the canyon land was already in Federal hands, but included mineral rights owned by a mining company as well as Utah State Trust lands. In creating a monument, the President promised to compensate both the mining company and the State of Utah, by giving them other Federal lands equal to the value of the trust lands and mineral rights. But Clinton's trade doesn't sit well with Idaho Republican Senator Larry Craig, a longtime supporter of timber, grazing, and mining interests. Craig says these land swaps violate private property rights and are a public rip-off.

CRAIG: There is a huge body of coal down there worth billions of dollars. He's proposed to exchange that out. Is the Congress willing to give a private company 150, 200, 300,00 acres of public land in exchange for the value of this coal?

HOYT: While the Monument is a done deal, how much public land will be traded and where it will come from in order to compensate both the mining company and the state of Utah are still unresolved. Jack Lyman formerly worked in the Utah Governor's Office and is now director of the Idaho Mining Association.

LYMAN: If I go out and invest my capital and identify and find a mineral resource, I now have a property right. If the public, through its elected officials or through its administrative agencies, decides that's a bad place to mine, I then have to be compensated if they're going to take that property right away from me.

(Flowing water)

HOYT: There are similar issues at stake near Yellowstone National Park, where icy mountain streams run crystal clear. These streams provide water for grizzly bears, wolves, bison, and other wildlife that are gone from most of the West. Two miles north of Yellowstone and 9,000 feet up the side of a mountain, the Noranda Mining Company hoped to reopen and expand a gold mine.

Environmentalists worried it might pollute the water in one of the most popular, most visited parks in the world. In August, with the spectacular vista of Yellowstone National Park as a backdrop, President Clinton promised to stop the proposed gold mine. Undersecretary of Agriculture Jim Lyons says Clinton is willing to trade $65 million worth of public land.

LYONS: What we're attempting to do there is to avoid the development of the mine by basically exchanging assets. Noranda owns the rights to the mineral reserves, and the Administration has proposed to exchange those assets for other resources elsewhere on public land in the United States.

HOYT: The Clinton Administration has until next month to make its offer to Noranda. The mining company has the right to reject it. As the deadline approaches, Undersecretary Lyons still hasn't decided which lands to offer.

LYONS: Well, obviously, there's got to be some give and take in this regard, but hopefully we can come to some reasonable agreement about what we will exchange in return for their mineral reserves.

HOYT: But some environmentalists don't like the idea of the government giving up any of its land. Bruce McMath of the Arkansas Sierra Club says land swaps are merely trading one ecosystem for another.

McMATH: The whole assumption is the National Forest is permanent. And if you can start swapping them and moving them about, then it begins to undermine the protection.

HOYT: And opens the door to possible abuse. That's what happened in a case in Colorado. A developer there bought a private end-holding in the heart of a wilderness area. He threatened to develop it unless the Forest Service bought him out or gave him land elsewhere. When the government didn't respond, he began flying out materials to build a luxury log cabin on the site. To stop him the Forest Service traded him lands adjacent to the Telluride ski area that turned out to be far more valuable than the private property the developer gave up. Again, the Arkansas Sierra Club's Bruce McMath.

McMATH: There's this temptation to get in a position where you allow business to blackmail, even, and from the public policy standpoint you can't let that happen any more in that setting than you would in a hostage situation. Because it just, it begets more of that, so to speak.

HOYT: Despite such fears, both developers and conservationists say land exchanges are often the cheapest way to deal with the legacy of old laws.

(Railway cars)

HOYT: In the 1800s, to encourage settlement in the West, the US Government granted railroads land in exchange for building a transcontinental railroad. Congress divided this land into square mile sections, giving the railroads and their timber subsidiaries every other section. Today, from an airplane, these lands look like a checkerboard. Clear-cuts are white with snow. Un-logged square mile sections are lush with evergreens.

(Footfalls on snow)

HOYT: In the forests north of Yellowstone National Park, Michael Scott walks through an icy snowfield in the heart of this checkerboard land. Scott is with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, which has worked for the past decade to consolidate property in Montana's Gallatin National Forest so that private holdings will be together in one area and public lands in another. Scott says this will make management easier for timber companies, and will provide badly needed winter feeding grounds for elk, deer, and other animals that often migrate out of Yellowstone and onto private land.

SCOTT: This time of the year in the winter, when it's 10 degrees outside as it is right now, they're not up in the tops of the mountains where the public ownership is; they're down toward the bottom of the valleys trying to survive this winter in the cold.

HOYT: Land exchanges, which are done administratively or by Congress, usually involve the public through hearings and governmental information statements and assessments. Michael Scott estimates the Gallatin exchange, one of the largest in the inter-mountain west, could take several more years to complete. While the outcome may be good, he explains, the process is arduous. For one thing, there are dozens of players.

SCOTT: You've got landowners. People who live next to public land. You've got timber companies. You have the Forest Service, which is a player. The Congressional delegation, the Governor's Office, the conservation community. All the different user groups whether they're snowmobilers...

HOYT: Still, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition's director Mike Clark who fought to stop the Noranda Mine, predicts there will be more land exchanges in the future.

CLARK: It's a clumsy way to solve problems. It takes a long time. It often puts one community in conflict with another. And it's very uncertain. At a time when the government is constrained for lack of money, a land exchange may be our best possible choice.

HOYT: As for the Clinton Administration, officials say there's still a place for outright purchase of sensitive lands. But they insist land swaps are another important tool. Especially in the west, where pressure on natural resources grows as fast as the population. Back in Idaho, those who engineered this small land exchange near Sun Valley, walk to the Big Wood River to celebrate.

(Traffic sounds)

MAN 1: There's bald eagle right there, look at that. It just went after a fish when I saw him.

MAN 2: You charge extra for the eagle?

MAN 1: No, that's why we're doing this.

HOYT: For Living on Earth, I'm Jyl Hoyt in Boise, Idaho.



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