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YOU CALL THIS GAMBLING?

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Bill Ruddick, a tall man with leathery skin and penetrating blue eyes, looks more like a rancher than a bureaucrat. Yet he is one of the agency's most seasoned land-exchange managers. He is in charge of the ambitious trade involving 585 acres of public land near Bullhead City and a group of scattered private holdings acquired by Walter Biewer throughout the state.

Ruddick's job is to evaluate the land to be traded in terms defined by the BLM. "Resource value," he explains, includes not only commodities such as timber, but biological diversity or uniqueness. "The overriding value on all the lands we designate for acquisition is their significance to the public," he says. "What do you do when you have a major prehistoric site like the one recently discovered near Springerville? Do you want to leave a resource like that in private ownership?"

He contends that "each of the parcels we would acquire in this exchange has already been identified as having an important value worth preserving. Each would add significantly to the public's natural heritage." Among them are two ranches in southeastern Arizona adjacent to the BLM's Empire-Cienega resource-management area; some acreage on Burro Creek, a federal wilderness area west of Prescott; and some land to enlarge southern Arizona's San Pedro River management area, crown jewel of the agency's habitat restoration projects.

"The only way we can add to these resources, or protect newly discovered ones, is by trading out land we've identified as having low resource value," Ruddick notes.

By such a measure, the BLM's thousands of scrub acres near Bullhead City are nearly worthless. Nevertheless, Mike Werner, a BLM appraiser assigned to the current Biewer trade, says, "If we're diligent, it can be a win-win situation. The public's natural heritage is enhanced, and developable land is made available in areas that need to grow."

That's the way Walter Biewer sees the land-exchange system. "I thought by arranging these trades," he says, "I was helping to save important resources for the public and free up land in places where it was needed for development."

Biewer says big-time land speculation was the furthest thing from his mind when he retired to Hemet, California, on the western fringe of the Mojave Desert, after a career in business and the military.

His new career began in 1986, courtesy of a two-line ad in the Sunday Los Angeles Times classifieds. A private party was offering 300 acres in the Black Mountains near Oatman, which is outside Kingman.

"I just decided on a whim to check it out," Biewer recalls. "The price was unbelievably low--it was part of an estate sale or something. I decided to take an option on it.

"Turns out, it was a lambing ground for desert bighorn sheep, and the BLM wanted to acquire it as part of their plan to protect the native sheep population. That's how I got into the federal land-exchange program. It was such a fluke I've always said the good Lord must have just pointed my nose in that direction."

Since then, Biewer has engineered four trades for BLM land near Bullhead City, three of which have been completed. He sold the first parcel, 160 acres, within six months for more than ten times the value assigned by BLM in the trade, making an apparent profit of more than $600,000. (Biewer contends that his actual profit was closer to $225,000.)

"I don't deny I made a good profit. I mean, I'm not in this for my health," Biewer says. "The amount of work it takes to put one of these things together, going out and getting options on all of the lands the BLM wants to acquire, which involves getting agreements with multiple owners, is such that there has to be a profit in doing it or no one would bother."

Biewer, however, maintains his luck began to turn bad with the completion of a second trade in 1988, when he sold a half interest in his newly acquired land to a Phoenix partnership. The partnership went sour, resulting in a crossfire of lawsuits in Maricopa County Superior Court, and Biewer claims that unrelated dispute has now so badly damaged his latest pending trade with the BLM that it may never be completed.

Whatever profits he made as a land trader have been devoured by the delay and its related complications, he claims. "The effect on me personally has been devastating, if you want to know the truth," Biewer says.

BIEWER'S LATEST TRADE with the BLM--the one that's in limbo--typifies the questions that continue to arise about the land-exchange program.

The BLM's Bill Ruddick acknowledges that land adjacent to the parcel Biewer wants, land which is identical in every respect and indeed was part of a former trade with Biewer, sold recently for $18,200 per acre. (Officials commonly refer to that deal as the "18K sale.")

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Kathleen Stanton