Commons or Commodity?

The Dilemma of Federal Land Exchanges

a report by George Draffan and Janine Blaeloch

the full 104-page illustrated report is available for $15 from

Western Land Exchange Project

PO Box 95545, Seattle WA 98145-2545

Table of Contents



Chapter 1. Overview of Land Exchange History And Recent Trends

Disposing of the Public Domain
The Purposes of Land Exchanges
The Law
Recent Trends

Chapter 2. Rationale, Rhetoric, and Reality

The Rationale for Land Exchanges
Rhetoric versus Reality
Conflicts of Interest: Buying Trades
Leveraged Exchanges
Legislated Exchanges
Paying Politicians
Conflicted Environmentalists
Third-Party Facilitators
"Equal Value"
Fundamental Flaws

There is no hunger like land hunger, and no object for which men are more ready to use unfair and desperate means than the acquisition of land.

-- Gifford Pinchot,
Chief of the U.S. Forest Service,


You chaps who are in favor of this conservation program are all wrong. In my opinion, the proper course to take with regard to [the public domain] is to divide it up among the big corporations and the people who know how to make money out of it...

-- Richard A. Ballinger,
Secretary of the Interior,

Chapter 3. Seven Case Studies

The Arkansas-Oklahoma Land Exchange
The Huckleberry and the Interstate 90 Land Exchanges
The Las Vegas and Humboldt-Toiyabe Land Exchanges
Mining Land Exchanges
The Idaho Assembled Exchange
The Gallatin Land Exchanges excerpted here
St. George, Utah: The Speculator, the Tortoise, and the Schools

Chapter 4. Reforming the Land Exchange Programs

Recent Legislative Proposals
Other Recent Developments and Opportunities for Reform
Reforms at the Bureau of Land Management
Reforms at the Forest Service
Recommendations of the Inspectors General
Recommendations of the Western Land Exchange Project


The most frightening part of my job
is land exchanges.

-- Pat Shea,
Director of the U.S. BLM,


Appendix A. Acquisition and Disposal of the Public Domain
Appendix B. Applicable Laws
Appendix C. Recommendations of the Public Land Law Review Commission
Appendix D. U.S. Forest Service Land Exchanges Exceeding $2 Million in Value, 1994-1999
Appendix E. For More Information and To Get Involved
Footnotes and References Cited

List of Tables

Table 1. Land Acquired for Public Ownership, 1964-1994
Table 2. Largest Public-Private Land Exchanges
Table 3. U.S. Forest Service Land Exchanges, 1987-1998
Table 4. BLM Land Exchanges, 1990-1997
Table 5. Land Exchanges Exceeding $10 Million in Value
Table 6. Third-Party Facilitators of Land Exchanges
Table 7. Major Public Lands Acquisitions
Table 8. Public Lands Disposals, 1781-1996



by Janine Blaeloch

Western Land Exchange Project

Every year, the two biggest public land agencies in the United States, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service (FS), complete some 300 land exchanges with private entities that include timber companies, developers, and mining conglomerates. While the agencies are authorized to make land trades only where they serve the public interest, most projects are initiated by private parties, not the agencies. The largest land trades occur in the West, where a single project can involve the transfer of tens of thousands of acres.

Perhaps the most vexing aspect of the federal land exchange program is that few citizens have any idea it exists. But most Americans understand that anything that involves land-especially in the West-is fertile ground for manipulation and malfeasance. The land exchange program is no exception.

In fact, the obscurity and complexity of land exchanges have made it possible for the agencies to keep the public at a distance and enact these deals with little fanfare or controversy. Until recently, environmental activists showed but tepid interest in challenging land swaps; some environmental groups have endorsed or even engineered exchanges, contributing to the perception that these projects are always benign or beneficial.

Ostensibly created to serve the public and protect public lands, land exchanges have become a corporate welfare program, doling out prime lands and resources to powerful interests and yielding dubious benefits to the public. A whole new industry of land swap facilitators has emerged to take advantage of this phenomenon. In too many cases, to paraphrase a country-western song, the corporations get the gold mine and the public gets the shaft.

Across the West, the Forest Service is trading away irreplaceable native forest to timber companies, often getting clearcuts, "rocks and ice" and low-quality habitat in return. In the Southwest, the BLM is using land trades to help companies like ASARCO and Phelps Dodge expand their already mammoth open-pit mining operations. Rampant urban expansion throughout the arid West is being facilitated through huge land exchanges with developers. Land swaps are partially responsible for the transformation of native deserts into golf courses and retirement communities.

Far from being the benevolent, "win-win" deals the proponents would have us believe they are, land exchanges are divesting us of some of the most ecologically valuable lands we have left. To heap insult on injury, taxpayers are losing millions of dollars each year through the under-appraisal of public lands and the overvaluing of private land.

Fortunately, things are changing for the better as more citizens become aware of the implications of land trades and their own rightful place in the decision making process.

As historian George Draffan shows us in this report, the dilemma of federal land exchanges is deeply rooted in Euro-American history. From that history has evolved a shockingly cavalier attitude toward the very thing that has provided our economic, cultural, and spiritual sustenance-the land.

Underlying the issues associated with land exchanges are fundamental questions regarding the very purpose of public lands and how we want to or should relate to them. Are they our commonwealth, or are they a mere commodity, a "resource"? Is it right to use public lands and the remaining fragments of our native ecosystems as currency? Are they a permanent legacy to protect and expand upon, or an asset to be liquidated, bartered, disposed of? These are questions that belong at the very center of our political dialogue.

We hope that this report will expand public knowledge of the federal land exchange program and encourage citizens to become involved in this important issue. Moreover, we hope that more Americans will begin to speak out about the importance of protecting our commons, the public lands.



Every year, the federal government engages in more than 300 public-private land exchanges, involving 150,000 acres with a total value of about $50 million. The U.S. and state governments conduct land swaps which add open space, greenbelts, or rare old-growth forest to the public domain. Other land exchanges take ancient forest out of the public domain and give it to timber corporations, in exchange for lands those corporations have already clearcut.

Sometimes small inholdings (pockets of private land) within the national forests are eliminated by trading them for less valuable parcels of public lands elsewhere. The biggest inholdings in the national forests are the checkerboards still held by the corporate heirs of nineteenth-century land grant railroads-and the checkerboard pattern is resulting in the largest land exchanges and biggest losses to the public treasury and public domain. Sometimes developers trade parcels of real estate in order to acquire public lands on the edge of a town, where prime development potential will bring the developers huge profits at public expense.

What is at stake in these land trades is no less than the public treasury, the irreplaceable public domain, increasingly rare wild habitats and their dependent species, water in arid places, the scope and pace and kind of development of rural areas, and the integrity of the political system.

The law governing land trades states that public-private land exchanges must be of equal value, but all too often the appraisal process is manipulated and hidden from public scrutiny. The law states that it is the policy of the federal government to retain the public lands unless the disposal of specific lands is consistent with the agency's planning. Yet as a nation, we (and consequently our public lands agencies) have no comprehensive program for the exchange, acquisition, and disposal of public lands. The result is that private proponents and third-party facilitators with much to gain are running the show.

This report will discuss the history and law of land exchanges. It will present an overview of recent trends and detail several case studies which illustrate the problems created by land exchanges. The report will conclude with recommendations for the reform of public lands policies, and point toward some practical tools public lands activists and concerned citizens can use.

It is hoped that readers of this report will gain a greater understanding of some critical elements of public lands history and policy, appreciate some of the complex issues at stake, and gain the desire and confidence to participate in land use actions that are affecting communities across the nation.

the full 104-page illustrated report is available for $15 from

Western Land Exchange Project

PO Box 95545
Seattle WA 98145-2545


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