News Analysis
Land Swap Lobby
Will Fight Reform

  copyright 1996, Electric Nevada

Federal auditors may want the Bureau of Land Management to curtail its controversial land-swap practices, but an intense lobby for the swaps has successfully fended off any change to the process for years.
That lobby -- made up of high Department of Interior officials and "non-profit" environmentalist land trusts -- is now gearing up to once again defeat any change to the status quo.
Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt's office telegraphed last week that it will continue the resistance.
Asked by Nevada congressman John Ensign to "cease all Nevada land exchanges until a full investigation is conducted," Babbitt, through office spokespeople, said no.
Because the audit report has not yet been finalized, said Interior Department spokesman John Wright, Babbitt is "unable" to take any action based upon it.
A different rationale was put forward earlier in the week by another Babbitt spokesperson. Stephanie Hanna said the secretary could not halt the land exchanges unless Congress acted to expand the Interior Department budget.
"Congress has drastically cut funds to buy lands," she said. "Land exchanges are one of our most effective tools, especially in Western cities with rapid growth."
In Nevada, BLM officials responded to the draft audit the same way that federal land managers responded to similarly critical audits of the practice in 1991 and 1992.
Press inquiries were met with statements that they "do not agree with all the [IG audit] findings," and that "There are always two sides to every story."
BLM District Manager Mike Dwyer disputed the findings and argued that the practice of land exchanges is beneficial to Southern Nevadans, contending money raised from competitive sales would go directly to the U.S. Treasury.
"We could do competitive sales, but Southern Nevada would definitely not benefit," Dwyer said.
In fact, however, says former state BLM appraisal chief Charles Hancock, the state of Nevada would get a full five percent of the proceeds of any such BLM competitive sales.
Because of that, he estimates that the BLM's failure to put recent land up for competitive bidding has already cost the State of Nevada millions of dollars.
Why are Department of Interior officials so committed to the land-exchange practice?
"The agencies tend to be pretty open" about that, says Tom Holt, Visiting Fellow at the Capital Resource Center in Washington, D.C.
"They use them precisely because
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they don't have to go through public processes, until the deal is essentially done."
Holt, currently writing a book on land trusts like the American Land Conservancy -a "nonprofit" land broker behind the one of the four largest Southern Nevada land swaps studied in the BLM audits - says federal agency officials like the transactions because they don't require public hearings, an open budget process, or notification of adjoining land owners.
But that makes for a "systemic problem," he says. because "these transactions happen in the dark."
Not only federal land officials but also major environmentalist land-trust operators like the current system. And they fight to keep it.
In 1992, when the Interior Department's Inspector General released an audit report that focused upon DOI land acquisitions conducted with the assistance of nonprofit organizations, those same organizations mobilized to fight its recommendations.
In that report, a copy of which was obtained by Electric Nevada, the auditors had pinpointed many of the same problems that the new Nevada BLM audit has again revealed.
For example, the auditors expressed "concern" that while "appraisers are required to be independent and unbiased," the BLM, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service were all accepting "property values based solely on appraisals provided by the nonprofit organizations that would benefit financially from high appraisals."
But "basically the system did not change after those reports," says Holt. When then-Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan, Jr., moved to "basically implement the IG's recommendation, he got overruled by the White House in late 1992. He was directly overruled by the President."
What had happened, other sources tell Electric Nevada, was that major non-profit environmentalist land trusts, including the giants The Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land, had weighed in.
Criticizing the report and denying any wrongdoing, both organizations contended the audit was "an effort to make land conservation more difficult by recommending additional administrative restrictions on those agencies entrusted with conserving our national parks and other public lands."

-- Steve Miller

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