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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 exchange.

Legal Issues

(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 with development.

(3) Any public land exchange involving Native American land or treaty rights should fully protect environmental values and respect Native American sovereignty and treaty rights.


(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.

Public Participation

(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

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