Exchanges of federal land, cash to halt mining raise questions Environmental groups laud efforts, but some warn of policy's pitfalls

November 18, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

BYNUM, Mont. -- President Clinton stood on a breezy plain just outside Yellowstone National Park this year, announcing an agreement to halt a massive gold mine by swapping $65 million in federal assets.

Conservationists, battling for years to block a mine that many feared would inundate the Yellowstone River with poisonous acid flows, celebrated. The pact, Clinton declared, provides "a model for America's challenges, not only in the environment, but in other areas as well."

Six days later, on the other end of Montana, a Wyoming businessman filed 104 hard-rock mining claims on 2,150 acres of the Rocky Mountain Front in the Lewis and Clark National Forest.

In the ensuing weeks, helicopters flew mining stakes up into the remote canyon -- a key link in a spectacular range of prairie and mountains considered among the best grizzly bear and major-predator habitat in the world.

"This area has been selected for wilderness designation. You couldn't have picked a worse place to develop, in terms of its wildlife value," said Mark Good of the Montana Wilderness Association, one of the groups already lining up to take on a new fight.

"It may just be coincidence," Good said. "But I personally think it's going to be a case of saying, 'I won't develop it, but you've got to pay me not to.' "

In recent months, the Clinton administration has turned to high-profile exchanges of federal land, cash and assets as a means of tabling some of the United States' most troublesome environmental disputes: redwood logging in Northern California, coal mining in Utah, salvage timber harvesting in Oregon, logging on Montana's scenic Blackfoot River.

The exchanges, lauded by major environmental and parks organizations, provide the opportunity of ending courtroom skirmishes that could have lingered for years and permanently protecting hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness.

But questions have been raised about whether the deals may wind up swapping an environmental threat in one location for one elsewhere -- and whether landowners who propose ecologically risky development ought to be compensated with federal payoffs. And some raise fears of a wave of speculation on federal lands.

In Moab, Utah, for example, two men with mining claims on the Colorado River declared in October that the government would have to buy them out if it wanted to halt mineral development.

Administration officials say land exchanges -- a mechanism used hundreds of times through the years but gaining momentum -- allow for the protection of threatened lands at a time when Congress is increasingly unwilling to spend money to buy federal parklands. A gold mine in Montana instead could be swapped for an office building in Washington, D.C., or a closed military base in Northern California.

The pacts are not unlike other land exchanges that the Interior Department and private groups such as the Nature Conservancy have negotiated for years in an attempt to consolidate land holdings, provide buffers and direct development into less environmentally sensitive areas.

But they are by far the largest and most consequential of these exchanges in recent years. The policy has escalated steadily under the direction of Interior Secretary Bruce E. Babbitt, who pioneered their use as governor of Arizona, and it comes at a time when the Clinton administration is seeking to rehabilitate its relationship with environmental advocates angered by the president's authorization of salvage timber harvesting on federal forest lands.

Although groups such as the Sierra Club and the National Parks and Conservation Association have lauded most of the exchanges, others warn that they could lead to environmental blackmail, speculation on public lands and the shifting of problems from one area to another.

"Trading these companies for assets the U.S. owns is policy with a lot of pitfalls in it," said Jim Jensen of the Montana Environmental Information Center.

Pub Date: 11/18/96

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