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YOU CALL THIS GAMBLING?

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At the state level, it has long been recognized that millions of dollars in additional revenues could be netted simply by zoning land before it is put on the block.

The goal of the state land commissioner is to generate as much income as possible from state trust lands, which then is spent on public education, says Glenn Collins, deputy commissioner of the Arizona Department of Land. The BLM, by contrast, is supposed to obtain environmentally important wild lands, which gives their program a very different focus, Collins contends.

Nevertheless, even Collins agrees that the BLM could use the same technique--land-use planning--to net the resources now being bled off by speculators.

Biewer's 1988 trade, along with numerous others, was temporarily frustrated when the federal land-exchange program was halted by controversy over a larger trade of BLM land elsewhere in Arizona. The controversy involved 41,000 acres of BLM land in Sun Valley, fifty miles west of Phoenix, that had been traded to speculator Huddie Bell for a few hundred dollars an acre in 1986.

Before even completing the BLM transaction, Bell had optioned most of the land for thousands per acre to Phoenix developer Robert Burns, who immediately began selling it for even more money to other investors. One of Burns' assistants at the time was Mark Shapiro, who later left Burns to go in business for himself.

Once uncovered by the media, the Sun Valley swap, along with similar deals near Casa Grande, drew accusations of mismanagement. The scandal prompted suspension of the BLM's land-exchange program while investigators from outside agencies examined the books.

"This place was crawling with people from the FBI, the General Accounting Office and I-don't-know-who-all," Ruddick says. "For a few months there, I spent more time with the FBI and the GAO than I did with my wife."

BLM officials deny the land-exchange program was ever formally suspended, but they concede that most trades were put on hold pending new regulations, which are still being written. The investigation did not result in criminal charges but led to administrative changes based on concerns by the investigators that the private-sector traders were too influential in determining appraisal values.

Not only would trade proponents initiate the swaps, which is still the case, prior to the investigation they often supplied the appraisals, as well. Now, appraisals are more closely supervised by the BLM, which uses in-house experts often brought in specially for one project, to review contractors' work. Ruddick, for instance, was handed the current Biewer trade despite being assigned to the Phoenix district. The BLM doesn't want another ruckus, he says, adding, "We're real sensitive to bad press."

Jammed into 25 square miles of bleak, hot northwestern Arizona is a late-twentieth-century version of the Gold Rush.

It's almost as if Bullhead City and Laughlin are on another planet.

The freshly crewcut mesas sprout stucco-and-tile subdivisions that overlook the 24-hour traffic jam on Highway 95 and the casinos on the other side.

"Seven thousand dollars per acre??" Phil Jost can hardly believe his ears.

"I've always said the good Lord must have just pointed my nose in that direction," Biewer says.

"I don't deny I made a good profit. I mean, I'm not in this for my health."

"People may be asking $25,000 an acre, but how many are getting it?

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Kathleen Stanton