Group Calls for Moratorium on Forest Service Land Trades

(From press release by the Western Land Exchange Project)

In a faxed letter dated September 27, 1998, the Western Land Exchange Project (WLXP) requested that U.S. Forest Service Chief Michael Dombeck impose an immediate moratorium on land exchanges between his agency and private parties.

Every year, federal land-management agencies engage in over 300 land trades, affecting tens of thousands of acres of public land. In the Northwest, the Forest Service is considering several large-scale trades with timber corporations.

Controversy over these trades has escalated in response to a proposed 80,000-acre exchange with Plum Creek Timber Company. Washington Senator Slade Gorton and Congressman Doc Hastings have both introduced legislation (S.2136 and HR 4021) that would bypass the normal exchange process and push the trade through Congress. Legislation could the reach the floor this week.

Among the problems cited in the letter to Dombeck:

The agency routinely swaps public forest for private clearcuts and roaded lands.

Through exchange, the Forest Service is acquiring hundreds of miles of corporate logging roads that carry both ecological and financial liabilities. Yet the agency already has a $10 billion backlog in forest road maintenance and repair and the unknown number of road miles that must be "put to bed" in order to forestall further environmental damage.

The land-valuation process is fertile ground for conflict of interest and malfeasance, and the public is losing millions of dollars in trades where public lands are undervalued and private lands overvalued.

These problems were recently substantiated in an audit by the USDA Inspector General of land trades in Nevada, and in a review of the Huckleberry Land Exchange with Weyerhaeuser. Additional USDA audits are being conducted in California and the Southwest.

While the agency has recently promised reform in its land exchange program,WLXP Director Janine Blaeloch expressed concern that "reform [moves at a] glacial pace," and new land trades will slide through the process without the benefit of improved policies.

Blaeloch asked Dombeck to place a moratorium on (1) new land-trade agreements and (2) the transfer of deeds on pending exchanges. She requested that the agency launch a full review of land-trade proposals to determine whether they are being conducted legally.

"Acting too late or too slowly to bring reform to this process will result in continuing erosion of public confidence, the potential loss of many more millions of dollars, and irreparable damage to ecosystems," Blaeloch said.

For more information contact:

Janine Blaeloch, Director, Western Land Exchange Project, PO Box 95545, Seattle, WA 98145-2545 phone (206) 325-3503

fax (206) 325-3515