By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
By and large, BLM land exchanges take place in one of two ways: either by the agency itself, or through an act of Congress. If BLM does the trade, detailed appraisals and an environmental-impact assessment are supposed to take place. If Congress does the deal, much of that can be done away with. Either way, the process can be fraught with problems.
Some BLM insiders have been willing to tell their personal tales.
Jack McDonald retired early from BLM in 1999, after 15 years at the agency, most recently as the state of Utah's chief appraiser. McDonald -- a well-known whistle-blower who has made his claims on national television -- says he and his staff were told to look the other way during a land trade between BLM and the state of Utah. McDonald insists the so-called Schools Exchange was a huge rip-off to federal taxpayers, who were in essence giving up valuable land in exchange for much less valuable land -- and all to placate Utah, which had threatened to sue the Clinton Administration because leaders were unhappy about the Escalante Monument that had recently been created in their state.
"If you overpay and overpay and overpay, pretty soon you can't pay for anything else," McDonald says, critical of Babbitt for not trying to get the best deal for the federal taxpayer. "I'd be lying if I said it didn't bug me to watch him ride off into the sunset with his environmental legacy."
McDonald shared information with the Government Accounting Office, which investigated both the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service (the Service is under the auspices of the Department of Agriculture, not Interior, but also conducts land exchanges) and published its conclusions last June: The GAO recommended that land exchanges were so inherently difficult to make fair -- and so screwed up under current practices -- that a moratorium should be placed on all exchanges made by both agencies.
The report was particularly critical of BLM, pointing to a number of land exchanges that appeared to favor the private landowner at the expense of the government. That is not an uncommon accusation in such trades, but this time GAO had several examples in which BLM appraisers, including Jack McDonald, had actually pointed out such discrepancies and had been ignored or transferred from their departments.
In a case involving Phoenix-based Del Webb, GAO found that BLM appraisers had estimated the value of a Nevada trade to favor the developer by $9 million, thanks to an appraisal by an outside consultant -- paid for by Del Webb. It was not until it appeared that the inspector general was about to launch an investigation that the trade was altered and the $9 million discrepancy evened out to a relatively fair trade.
The GAO was particularly critical of a practice that had gone on for years, in which BLM was selling land instead of exchanging it, and keeping the money instead of depositing it in the U.S. Treasury. In a random survey of six state BLM offices, the GAO found more than $10 million in unaccounted funds. According to auditors, when BLM was initially told to cease the practice, BLM employees were told to stop referring to the sales as "sales" or "purchases," and instead to call them "transactions" -- and accept bonds instead of cash as payment.
The GAO report was illuminating for Janine Blaeloch, who has fought for years to review appraisal documents and other paperwork that reveal how fair -- or unfair -- the trades are, with limited success.
Both GAO auditor Sue Ellen Naiberk and Daniel Weiss, chief of staff to U.S. Representative George Miller, a California Democrat and former ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, recall that unlike the Forest Service, BLM was reticent to change.
While the Forest Service immediately responded to Miller's concerns with a lengthy plan of action, "BLM gave us no response," Weiss says. (Actually, that's not true. Babbitt did send Miller a two-page letter last August, but basically to tell him that not much would change.)
BLM has continued to conduct the land sales it now calls transactions, although it is in the early stages of an audit suggested by the GAO. Last year, Congress passed a bill that authorizes BLM to conduct sales and keep some of the proceeds instead of passing them all along to the U.S. Treasury; procedures are still being worked out as to how to implement the new law.
BLM spokesman Rem Hawes says the agency has reviewed its practices and increased requirements for appraisers. He downplays the GAO's findings: "The report frankly focused on overall what are some anomalies."
The Government Accounting Office didn't uncover the only troubling news at Bruce Babbitt's BLM.
In some cases, it appears as though potentially bad land trades were made to placate special interests who were unhappy with other Clinton policies.
"This was part of the Clinton legacy, too -- just bending over all the time," Janine Blaeloch says.
One such example is found in Utah, where officials, including U.S. Representative Jim Hansen, a Republican, were unhappy because Clinton failed to tell them that the Escalante National Monument was coming. To make up for it, activists like Blaeloch contend, land trades were made that give the state millions of dollars in developable land, potentially at a steep cost to federal taxpayers.