Las Vegas Acreage
How Many Times Can Voters
Be Sold This 'Bill' of Goods?

  By Tim Findley

Like a big Monopoly game where taxpayers are the tokens, the federal land exchange process grows tense this election season.
One Monopoly player is trying to hold on to his White House by trading properties he may not even own.
"Give you Vegas for just about anything," seems to be President Bill Clinton's pitch.
Remember the "deal" that he told the Democratic National Convention he'd made to "save Yellowstone" from mining?
What Clinton and his environmental advisors had in mind is still not clear.
It was first reported as the swap of some unidentified federal land worth at least $65 million to Crown Butte Mines Inc. for their promising gold strike just outside Yellowstone in Montana. But it now appears that Clinton may not have had any particular properties at all in mind when -- during a vacation visit to Yellowstone in August -- he made his electioneering announcement.
In fact, it turns out a federal search team from the Bureau of Land Management wasn't even organized to look for possible swap sites until 17 days after the announcement. That's the word from BLM Deputy Director Matt Millenbach.
And fudged out of Clinton's campaign crowing on the deal was the fact that it gives the mining company the option of backing out of the deal in February -- a month of so after the Clintons have the carpets redone for another four years in the White House.
Just how Clinton was even able to pull off the deal, and what promises may have been made, seems part of the mystery. Four of the mining company's board members resigned shortly after the announcement, complaining they were never even informed negotiations were going on.
So what does the President have to offer in return for a campaign plank built in the Wyoming breeze?
The usual, it appears: richly sought-after and often-claimed development sites around Las Vegas identified by Millenbach as up for trade.
This is apparently the same slice of BLM-owned land near the booming gaming capitol that has already been claimed in part by the Del Webb Corporation in return for farms it and the Nature Conservancy bought this year from embattled growers near a proposed wetland outside Fallon, Nevada.
It's also apparently the same Las Vegas BLM property the American Land Conservancy refers to in its still on-going swap deal for a 140-acre mansion and estate on Lake Tahoe.
And although the President was just as vague in Arizona about what he had done in Utah, the federally-owned Vegas property also seems to have been part of the carrot offered to trade out coal leases on his newly-proclaimed Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Vegas, like Boardwalk and Park Place, seems to command a lot of interest, even if there may not actually be enough of it to go around.
What seems obvious was that Clinton's western land dealings were meant primarily to win him back Pennsylvania Avenue, while promising to pay the bank later.
Just as they had in Wyoming when Clinton supposedly shut down the min in Montana, environmentalists cheered their man's announcement of a 1.7 million acre Utah wilderness created without so much as a howdy to Congress.
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, there for the occasion in his home state, bubbled on about there being "other mineral lands in Utah, a lot of federal lands, a lot of federal mineral lands," to trade. "All we've got to do is identify them and get that discussion going," he said.
Utah Senator Orrin hatch stood with his state's entire Congressional delegation in calling it part of a "war on the West," and Utah Governor Michael Leavitt accused Clinton of completely ignoring "the public trust."
But both those guys are Republicans, and Utah only has five electoral votes anyway. Clinton's ambitions were clearly farther west, mostly in California.
The Golden State had its own plans for dealing around public property in an environmentalist push to trade 3000 acres of privately held redwood forest for the surplus U.S. Naval base at Treasure Island, an offer that sent chills up the backs of even some tree huggers in San Francisco.
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That deal was apparently put aside by a brokered arrangement to buy the forest lands with federal and state funds totaling $380 million. Environmentalists said they still didn't like it.
Closed military bases such as Treasure Island and even old government office buildings in Washington, D.C., are part of the cards Clinton and the BLM apparently hold in their western wheeling and dealing.
But somebody, apparently, has to be bluffing in this strange property game. Mining officials are still perplexed about what might be the final outcome of the Yellowstone deal, which some federal officials say, off the record, never had more than a 50-50 chance of being final in the first place.
The feds had tried to gloss over the doubts with sweeping generalizations about their knowledge of western lands, but Montana officials were appalled when one BLM representative suggested the swap could involve federal grazing lands.
At going prices of about $100 an acre, that would take about 650,000 acres to pay off the mine.
"We don't really want to give up half the state of Montana," admitted BLM Deputy Director Millenbach.
So if the big deal of the Demo convention is to be done before the back-out date in February, that seems to leave Las Vegas, or something like it, where empty-looking desert can be parlayed and resold for many times what it's worth in public hands.
Just such deals cut in recent years for Nevada grazing and farm land made "public" in a swap for property near Glitter Gulch have made several developers and their "enviromentalist" agents like The Nature Conservancy and the American Land Conservancy wealthy.
Critics have demanded that the BLM exchange program be re-examined by Congress with an eye on whether the sweetheart arrangements are actually bilking taxpayers out of millions of dollars that the lands are actually worth.
The BLM turned aside one such threatened Congressional inquiry earlier this year with a combination of political pressure reportedly put on by Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) and a promise to re-examine its own procedures.
It's that re-examination that has Harriet Burgess of the American Land Conservancy making worried noises.
"We're working on four exchanges with them right now," she said, and added that if new BLM procedures for exchanges aren't announced early next year, it could jeopardize her plan to "save" the $137 million Whittell estate on Lake Tahoe for the Forest Service.
Burgess has become a masterful land trader over the last decade by fronting the ALC for developers anxious to get their names on available federal property by buying up private property and deeding it over to public use.
It's not as generous as it sounds -- the deals financially benefit both the developers and the ALC.
In Fallon, for example, Nature Conservancy-brokered deals allowed Del Webb to buy out farm land at hefty-sounding prices of up to a million dollars. But the farm land is taken off the county tax rolls and ceases all production, while the "non-profit" Nature Conservancy not only earns a fee, but takes some of the choice land itself, as a wetlands "visitors center." The Vegas property Del Webb expects to get for its end of the arrangement has been estimated by a former BLM appraiser to be worth as much as 10 times the price paid for the farm land.
Nature Conservancy land swaps in the Fallon farming region also appear to have put on hold during the election season.
Everybody, it seems -- the Yellowstone miners, the Utah coal interests, Del Webb, The Nature Conservancy, and Harriet Burgess among them -- appears to be waiting to see what will happen after the election.
Back on the campaign trail, meanwhile, Bill Clinton was down in Florida talking about efforts to save the Everglades.
He has an idea, it was reported. If he can just get those developers to sit down and talk with him, there's this nice, big, patch of federal land near Las Vegas...


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