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Swaps May Lead To Speculation In Federal Lands Developers Rush To File Mine Claims In Environmentally Sensitive Areas

President Clinton stood on a breezy plain just outside Yellowstone National Park earlier 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 4-by-4-inch 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 environmental 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.

Administration officials say land exchanges - a mechanism used hundreds of times through the years but gaining momentum as a tool for unlocking some of the United States’ most troubling environmental disputes - 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 or a good building location in downtown Las Vegas.

Nowhere is the policy shift more evident than in the West, where a government that once opened up vast tracts of land for logging and mineral development now is ready to hand over millions of dollars in assets to stop it.

“The New World mine (near Yellowstone) is a classic example. There’s a piece of property and a mine proposal where I think it’s fair to say the overwhelming majority of Americans think it’s probably a dumb idea to put a mine there,” said John Leshy, the Interior Department’s chief solicitor.

“There’s land out there that’s not in federal ownership that ought to be. At the same time, everybody but the most committed socialist would say there’s federal property out there that doesn’t really belong in national ownership. And there are the seeds of an exchange.”

The agreement to stop the New World mine - which would have stripped $600 million worth of gold, silver and copper from three Yellowstone River watersheds - came after a series of secret talks among representatives of Crown Butte Mines Inc., conservation groups suing to stop the mine and administration officials.

The deal called for Crown Butte to hand over the lands it holds near Yellowstone and spend $22.5 million cleaning up the effects of past mining, in exchange for $65 million in federal assets to be selected by February. The pact is hardly a boon for the mining company, which will barely break even on the money it has already invested.

For groups opposing the mine, it assures that the mineral-rich region will not be the subject of further lawsuits and hearings.

“As much as we were convinced the mine was illegal, there would never be certainty in the permitting process. We could find ourselves fighting this mine time after time after time, every five years,” said Brian L. Kuehl, project attorney for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a conservation group. “It was a zero-sum game. There was no way you could play and win.”

A month after the Yellowstone agreement, Clinton announced that the proposed extraction of 3 million tons a year of coal from Utah’s red-rock desert would be halted by declaration of a national monument on Escalante Canyon and the Kaiparowitz Plateau. The deal will allow the state, which has opposed the pact, to swap trust lands within the monument for federal assets. The administration has offered to help the Dutch company seeking to extract coal from the plateau to locate other suitable federal coal leases or revenues.

In Northern California, the administration in late September announced a $380 million deal with Texas financier Charles Hurwitz to preserve 7,470 acres of ancient redwood groves slated for harvesting. The pact is to be financed with a combination of state and federal assets, but falls short of conservation groups’ hopes to protect all six ancient redwood groves of the 60,000-acre Headwaters Forest.

Federal authorities are conducting talks with another private landowner in the new Mojave National Preserve aimed at protecting 285,000 acres threatened with possible mining and home-building.

Although groups such as the Sierra Club and the National Parks and Conservation Association have applauded most of the exchanges, others have warned that they carry the potential of environmental blackmail, land speculation 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.

Tags: land use