Blackwater Canyon Land Swap Would Only Benefit Selfish Interests

Taxpayers Donít Need More Giveaways of Their Lands

By Vivian Stockman

In December of 1997, Senator Rockefeller helped the US Forest Service (USFS) and Allegheny Wood Products (AWP) sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) about Blackwater Canyon.

According to the USFS publication The Monongahela Quarterly, "AWP would exchange certain acreage on the north side of the Blackwater Canyon which shall include certain sections of the Blackwater River. AWP would also convey to the FS certain acreage on the south side of the Canyon, including the "viewshed" from Blackwater Falls State Park, the land between the North Fork and the main fork of the Blackwater River, and certain acreage below Lindy Point of the "viewshed" of the State Park. AWP would provide right to public access on Canaan Loop Road (FR 13) and certain named trails to the FS. The FS would convey to AWP various parcels of National Forest land located in Preston and Tucker counties."

WVHCís Blackwater Canyon Committee opposes any land swap as we believe the entire Canyon must be preserved if it is to continue to function as an ark for rare, threatened and endangered species, and as a treasure chest for Tucker County and West Virginia tourism. In addition, a land swap would further fragment the Monongahela Forest, to its ecological and recreational detriment.

The district forester in charge of these MOU proceedings, Jim Knibbs, recently said the planning process is still ongoing, and there is no firm proposal as to what the exchange would entail. Most of this summer, soil scientists, archaeologists, and other specialists have been doing field surveys on potential exchange pieces, gathering information on what parcels of the Monongahela Forest could be considered for the swap. Any potential swap-lands are being appraised by a federal appraiser, on a "value for value" basis. The appraiser is determining what those values are, and this would not necessarily be an acre for acre swap. Once all this surveying and appraising is complete, the public will have a chance to make comments.

Itís interesting that the USFS is proceeding with this land exchange idea here in the East, while out west the Service has agreed to launch internal reviews of three land appraisals conducted for land exchange programs. Western Land Exchange Project (WLXP) Director Janine Blaeloch wrote to USFS Chief Michael Dombeck urging the Service to investigate whether appraisals for three exchanges were fairly conducted. WLXP found that the appraisals applied huge discounts to federal timber values (to the tune of millions of dollars). In the appraisals, tens of millions of board feet were under-tallied and hundreds of acres of federal timber were unaccounted for in timbered acreage calculations.

Blaelochís letter stated: "The Forest Service appears now to recognize that there are acute problems with the process for and conduct of land-exchange appraisals. It must further recognize that the lack of public access to valuation data and methodology only compounds these problems. The secrecy of the appraisal process increases the potential for improper actions, and, as you are aware, greatly adds to the publicís distrust in the land exchange process.

"If, as we believe, public lands and timber are being undervalued and private lands overvalued, perhaps the greatest harm lies in the fact that through appraisal error or malfeasance, the public may be relinquishing more forest and irreplaceable habitat than would occur in equal trades."

Those of us who frequent--if only in our thoughts--the Blackwater Canyon and the Monongahela Forest know how irreplaceable and invaluable both are. Any swap would be not just a bad idea and bad policy Ė it would be a bum trade.