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BLM a force on the land after 22-year era of acquisition

Tracks of porcupines (above) and a few other critters were the only obvious signs of life near Govan on Wilson Creek property acquired in December by the Bureau of Land Management. (Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review)
Tracks of porcupines (above) and a few other critters were the only obvious signs of life near Govan on Wilson Creek property acquired in December by the Bureau of Land Management. (Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review)

Basically, the era started in 1987 with 156 acres purchased at the Lakeview Ranch near Pacific Lake north of Odessa.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management – once the runt of land management agencies in Eastern Washington – was beginning a campaign to build its stature one parcel at a time.

As the two-decade flurry of land trades, acquisitions and consolidation winds down, the agency has become a regional giant for wildlife habitat restoration and public access to shrub-steppe wild lands.

BLM has increased its Washington land holdings from about 308,000 acres in 1985 to about 445,900 acres at the end of 2008, said Mark Hatchel, the agency’s realty specialist in Spokane.

In that period, the largest gains have been in Lincoln County, where BLM has expanded more than tenfold, from about 7,000 acres to 78,800 acres.

But the benefits are larger than the gains in acreage.

By acquiring an 8,000-acre ranch here and a 10,000-acre ranch there, BLM started building a real spread where fish and wildlife could be housed and managed on equal or higher terms with livestock. Hunters, hikers and mountain bikers can enter a gate and travel freely all day through the scablands without stepping off public land.

Moreover, revenue to county governments has increased as the feds assumed more ownership.

BLM was not land-poor in the ’80s. However, outside of a few areas such as Yakima County, the property the agency held was fragmented and scattered around the state. Many parcels of a few hundred acres or less were surrounded by private land and virtually inaccessible.

“Most of our lands were the leftovers after all the lands were claimed under federal laws, such as the Homestead Act,” Hatchel said.

BLM’s long-range plan was simple: trade or sell the small isolated parcels in order to buy larger areas and consolidate ownership that’s more manageable as open space for recreation and wildlife habitat.

The details were complicated.

“BLM can do one-on-one land exchanges, but if a farmer wants cash or somebody else’s property, BLM can’t do the multiples,” said Darrel Olson who worked for 20 years as a third party through his Orofino-based company, Clearwater Land Exchange, to facilitate the deals.

“Most of the consolidations involved transactions with up to 20 participants. It amounted to a pretty good chess game trying to link them all together. A lot of it was personality matching. It was fascinating work.”

Only in a few cases of fleeting availability did BLM simply purchase a property outright with funding from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Rural people have a natural aversion to anything involving the federal government coming into their backyards, Olson said. “But once they understand the benefits, a lot of people would eventually change positions.

“In the 10-year period it takes to complete something a public agency wants to do, 80 percent of those lands will come available, even lands that look as though they’ll never be available. We built a database and kept in touch with them. People get old; they fall off a horse; they die — circumstances change.”

Opposition also surfaced in some cases for the land BLM was conveying.

“From our point of view, it made perfect sense to get rid of places we couldn’t manage,” Hatchel said. “Out of 55 parcels in Stevens and Ferry counties, 44 didn’t have public access and 23 of those parcels were less than 40 acres.”

But in some cases, adjacent landowners didn’t relish the land being sold to a private timber company.

In the mid-1990s, conservation groups filed a lawsuit to get more public oversight of the land deals.

“We’re not at all against BLM trying to protect sagebrush habitat,” Mike Peterson of The Lands Council explained at the time. “The problem with this land exchange is that it trades a bunch of precious old growth ponderosa pines for overgrazed range land.”

State and federal wildlife biologists backed BLM’s effort in securing large tracts of public land as a major stride toward preserving low-profile creatures such as sharp-tailed grouse, sage sparrows, burrowing owls and other species that depend on a dry-land habitat known as shrub-steppe.

“Riparian vegetation in the West is in much more jeopardy than old growth,” said Jerry Hickman, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department biologist assigned to Lincoln County in 1997. “Dealing with one agency to get some concessions for wildlife habitat is a lot easier than trying to work with a dozen landowners.”

The BLM program has been wildly successful in terms of public access to open spaces for hunting, fishing, horse riding and other recreation.

Standout examples include more than 20,000 acres along Pacific Lake and Crab Creek near Odessa, about 8,000 acres along the west side of Fishtrap Lake and about 17,000 acres in the Coffee Pot Lake and Twin Lakes areas west of Harrington, reopening access to fishing that had been shut off to the public in the early 1980s.

The 14,000-acre Escure Ranch straddling the Adams-Whitman county line south of Lamont, a former sheep and cattle operation, was a plum for the public when the original 12,800 acres were purchased in 1999. The property includes eight miles of Rock Creek.

A 475-acre addition purchased in 2000 provided public access to the portion of the ranch that includes Wall Lake.

“If you ask somebody on the street about BLM land consolidation in Lincoln County he’s likely to be negative, but I think that’s changing,” said Dennis Bly, a cattleman and Lincoln County commissioner.

“I personally sold pasture ground to them in the mid-’90s. There was no other buyer at that time.

“There’s a misinterpretation that BLM doesn’t pay taxes. They pay a PILT (payment in lieu of taxes). It’s actually more than the taxes the private landowner paid on that same pasture ground — about 30 percent more to the county general fund.”

The county commissioners consider the land deals a property rights issue that’s between the BLM and individual landowners, he said.

“A person who owns property has the right to buy or sell from whomever,” he said. “We hope farmer and cattle economics work out so that a neighbor would be able to buy adjoining land if that’s the case, but often it isn’t.

“BLM has been buying shrub-steppe land that nobody wanted, at least not for a fair price.”

In many cases, BLM has offered lease-back arrangements so ranchers selling land can continue grazing, although the amount of grazing is significantly reduced by up to 60 percent, Olson said.

“This helps the transition and it’s good for the families as well as the wildlife and the county,” Bly said.

Olson said the advantages go even further.

One example involved an aging ranch couple looking to ease out of the cattle business. “Over two years, we found them a farm and worked on a trade,” he said.

“BLM leased back the grazing rights to the family at about 40 percent of the cattle they had been grazing before. That frees up the land for improvement to watershed and wildlife issues and allowing public access while keeping the family in the cattle business, and they still live on the place.

“The family paid capital gains tax, so the U.S. general fund benefited. The county got excise tax on the value of the property. And the family took advantage of tax benefits — if I can’t design a transaction with significant set of benefits, it won’t happen. In this case, everyone benefited, including The Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited, both of which served an advisory role.”

Resentment that was common at the beginning of the land consolidation campaign in the Odessa area has tapered off, Bly said. “I haven’t had anybody mention the recent land transactions at the northwest end of the county.”

BLM’s latest round of consolidations in the Columbia Basin shrub-steppe region, primarily in Lincoln County, involved 14 different land transactions since November 2003, Hatchel said. The agency conveyed 4,500 acres of public land on 53 parcels and acquired nearly 18,000 acres of private land valued at $7.7 million.

“Now we’re entering a new phase to focus on managing the land we’ve consolidated,” said June Hues, BLM resource area manager, noting that virtually all of the BLM staffers who initiated the consolidation era have retired or advanced to other positions.

Fencing and formal access points to newly acquired lands will take time to complete, she said.

“Our land acquisitions will be more opportunistic from here on,” said Scott Pavey, agency spokesman in Spokane. “We have a lot to work with now, and a lot to do.”