Sierra Club Conservation Policies
Public Land Exchange Policy
The public land of the United States is an important natural heritage of all Americans.
Public land provides open space, clean water, important habitat for native plants and
animals, wilderness, wild rivers, a last stronghold for many endangered ecosystems, and
opportunities for outdoor recreation. Public land should be retained in public ownership
and only traded in circumstances that meet the highest environmental standards.
Definition of Land Exchange
A public land exchange is any transaction other than a sale that transfers publicly
owned land (federal, state, county or municipal) from one owner to another. A public land
exchange usually involves trading public land for private land, but it can involve trading
land between different land management agencies. The exchange may involve the surface,
subsurface mineral rights, or both. The exchange may include a financial payment to
equalize the value of the trade.
The Sierra Club's primary responsibility in public land exchanges is to promote the
protection and restoration of biological and ecological values. Social values, such as
protection or enhancement of recreational, cultural or historical resources, are also
important secondary factors in determining the Club's position on land exchanges.
The Sierra Club believes the prospects for protecting crucial biological and ecological
values are usually better when the land is in public ownership than when privately owned,
certainly when the private owner is in the business of resource extraction (such as
logging or mining) or other types of development. While public ownership in no way
guarantees protection, it does have the advantage over private ownership of allowing for
the application of environmental laws and regulations and public involvement processes. An
obvious exception when private ownership may be preferable is when the private party is a
land conservancy or similar organization dedicated to protecting environmental values.
The Sierra Club prefers public acquisition of land by purchase, especially in cases
when the acquisition is accompanied by provisions protecting environmental values after
the public agency takes ownership. Other viable approaches to protecting land include
protective regulations, deed restrictions, protective easements, purchase of development
rights or transfer of ownership to a private land conservancy for preservation.
The highest priority should be given to public acquisition and preservation of land of
high biological and ecological value. Land traded out of public ownership generally should
be of lesser biological and ecological value, unless higher value land is traded to a
party dedicated to its conservation, that party's
management of the land would afford more protection than is currently provided under
public management, and the public interest is protected.
Public acquisition of inholdings in wilderness areas, other conservation system units
and candidate areas is a high priority.
Environmentally Sensitive Land
To maximize funds available for land acquisition, the Sierra Club supports full funding
for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and other land conservation programs.
The Sierra Club does not generally support land exchanges in which environmentally
sensitive lands would be transferred out of public ownership into the ownership of a
logging corporation, land developer, or similar party who would degrade the environmental
values of the land. Consideration may be given to supporting such an exchange, if the
proposed public land exchange as a whole is highly environmentally beneficial and other
remedies to protect the imperiled lands have been exhausted or are unavailable.
Environmentally sensitive lands are defined as:
- old-growth forest
- roadless areas 1000 acres or larger
- vital habitat for species listed as threatened or endangered under state or federal
endangered species acts
- designated protected areas (National and State Parks, State natural areas, Wilderness
Areas, Wild and Scenic River corridors, Wildlife Refuges, Wilderness Study Areas, Research
Natural Areas, etc.), or areas advocated by the Sierra Club for inclusion in one of these
conservation system designations
- environmentally important wetlands; or
- scientifically recognized rare ecological communities.
Additional Guiding Principles
(1) Cumulative impacts of past and proposed land exchanges, as well as future uses of
land to be traded into or out of public ownership, should always be considered.
(2) Adequate ecological, cultural, recreational and mineral surveys should precede an
(1) All land exchanges, either administrative or legislative, should comply with all
applicable laws and regulations, and should be subject to full judicial review.
(2) Disputes over land ownership, valid existing rights or access should be settled
prior to completing a land exchange. Whenever possible, all rights - including surface,
subsurface and outright public ownership - should be obtained to avoid future conflicts
(3) Any public land exchange involving Native American land or treaty rights should
fully protect environmental values and respect Native American sovereignty and treaty
(1) All applicable land use restrictions should be considered prior to appraisals for a
proposed land exchange. Environmental laws, regulations and court orders often restrict
resource extraction and development activities, whether the land is publicly or privately
owned. Appraisals should not be based on full extractive or development potential of land
if environmental restrictions would limit the development potential.
(2) Appraisals should be closely scrutinized to determine if appraised values are
serving the public interest.
(1) Any public land exchange should involve a full and open public participation
process. Public disclosure of appraised values and other important information should
occur early in the process to allow adequate opportunity for public review.
(2) Any legislative land exchange should be subject to the same standards of full
environmental review, maximum public participation and protection of citizen's rights as a non-legislative land exchange.
Adopted by the Board of Directors, February 17-18, 2001