Land Sakes!

Clinton Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt lays claim to an environmental legacy. Too bad it's a monumental disappointment.

Earlier this month, deeds changed hands on the latest such trade, called West Desert. The deal was legislated, but Babbitt and Utah Governor Mike Leavitt cut the bargain. Environmentalists guess that the values are way off, favoring the state of Utah, which, like Arizona, has a state trust that will sell off the land it gets from the federal government.

"It's the worst thing you can possibly imagine," Blaeloch says of the Utah trade. Each side -- state and federal -- hired independent consultants, who announced that each side of the trade was worth $20 million. Blaeloch calls that "patent bullshit," noting that Utah got developable land along an interstate and state highways and a parcel at the gateway to Zion National Park; the feds got land that abuts one of the most toxic sites in the country.

Blaeloch has been battling with the federal government to get access to appraisal documents, and she was recently told she'll receive some of them soon.

The Sierra Club's Rob Smith forgives Bruce Babbitt for the Interior's shortfalls under his reign, given the political climate.
The Sierra Club's Rob Smith forgives Bruce Babbitt for the Interior's shortfalls under his reign, given the political climate.

Here in Arizona, a state-federal trade is pending. It was orchestrated last year between Babbitt and Governor Jane Hull. An agreement was signed last October, and this year U.S. Representative John Shadegg introduced legislation to make it happen -- once the land is chosen. A map available at the State Land Department identifies dozens of potential sites in the trade, which could include 150,000 acres of state land exchanged for 33,500 acres of BLM land. But so far, the decision-making process has not been made public at all, says Lori Faeth, director of government relations for The Nature Conservancy in Phoenix.

The Nature Conservancy expressed concern early on about one potential site, which would involve a trade of BLM lands around the Hassayampa River Preserve south of Wickenburg, a portion of the river with perennial flow that is home to endangered species.

"We felt that might have a serious impact on the preserve," Faeth says, adding, "We're looking forward to the public process."

The exchange cannot take place without a vote by the people of Arizona, who would have to approve a ballot measure in 2002 allowing for such exchanges. Similar measures have gone down four times in the past.

Blaeloch is concerned about language in Shadegg's bill that would likely make the appraisal process less stringent than the normal federal guidelines used in BLM land exchanges handled directly by the agency.

Mining is another area where environmentalists say Clinton and Babbitt caved to special interests, using land exchanges to soothe sore feelings and strapped bank accounts.

Babbitt came into office with the intention of reforming the 1872 Mining Law, written more than a century ago to make business easier for the mining industry. One provision of the law allows mining on some federal lands at dramatically low costs. Babbitt did not get the reforms he wanted, but he was successful in establishing a moratorium on the patents which allow the mining. It's more expensive to mine on federal land now, but the industry quickly found a way around that problem: Simply do land exchanges, then mining companies will own the land they want.

Peter Galvin, a conservation biologist for the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, is critical of a potential land exchange in Safford, in eastern Arizona, in which Phelps Dodge Mining Co. wants to trade land with BLM. The exchange process has gone on for years. At one point, BLM even allowed Phelps Dodge to pay the salaries of agency employees working on environmental-impact statements.

A BLM spokeswoman says that Phelps Dodge had no input as to the hirings or findings of the employees.

Yet again, this one does not appear to be a good deal for federal taxpayers.

It's estimated that Phelps Dodge would exchange land valued at $4 million for land that -- because of its access to copper ore -- could be worth more than $2 billion.

Bruce Richardson, a spokesman for Phelps Dodge, says that's an unfair assessment.

"That's a classic argument that we hear from that side. And the fact is that the land has no value unless somebody that knows how to mine it can mine it," he says. "It's only valuable if somebody can extract the minerals that are there. The system is such that it allows organizations that have expertise to do that, to be able to invest in that. It is an investment."

Galvin doesn't buy that. "Babbitt took a good step with the patenting moratorium, but didn't take that next step, which was to say these exchanges are a scam, too," he says.

Such tales do not conjure the image of the man Arizona environmentalists came to know and love -- and, in many cases, continue to embrace -- during Babbitt's years as the state's attorney general and governor.

Babbitt campaigned for attorney general in the '70s on the promise that he would clean up corrupt land deals. He was well-meaning, but only marginally successful. But as governor, Babbitt participated in some significant, worthy land trades, preserving hundreds of thousands of acres as federal wilderness and protecting places like the now-named San Pedro Riparian Conservation Area, which environmentalist Rob Smith refers to as a "highway for biological diversity."

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