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Sierra Magazine
Lay of the Land

Russia's Green Menace | For the Record | Wilderness blackmail | Naming Clearcutters | Crashing WTO's party | Roads to Nowhere | Bold Strokes | UPDATES

Backcountry Blackmail

Real estate speculators hold wildlands hostage

Wilderness is, by act of Congress, "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." But that isn't stopping a handful of developers from moving forward with plans to build a mini-subdivision of trophy homes smack-dab in the middle of Colorado's Holy Cross Wilderness. The proposed development, by notorious speculator Tom Chapman and an associated land investment company, TDX, would contain 11 homes, including an $8 million, 9,000 square-foot mansion complete with sauna, hot tub, piano lounge, heli-pad, and guard dog kennel.

While designated wilderness areas are given the highest level of formal protection, they remain at risk if they contain private parcels, or inholdings, within their boundaries. Thousands of these historic remnants litter national forests and wilderness areas, relics of homesteads or mining claims that predate the protected entity. Increasingly, these are being snatched up by developers like Chapman who threaten to log, mine, or subdivide them unless the government pays an exorbitant ransom for the property.

Holy Cross isn't Chapman's first attempt at wilderness speculation. In 1992 he ferried supplies by helicopter into Colorado's West Elk Wilderness (cars and trucks being explicitly prohibited from wilderness areas) and began constructing a hunting lodge on a 240-acre inholding, private land that he and his investment team had purchased for $640,000. Afraid that the wilderness would be permanently compromised, in 1995 the Forest Service agreed to exchange the land for a parcel located near Telluride, Colorado, which Chapman swiftly sold for $4.2 million. Encouraged by this deal, Chapman and TDX purchased more inholdings and are now marketing parcels in or adjacent to the Holy Cross, Weminuche, and Fossil Ridge Wilderness Areas.

This summer, the General Accounting Office reported that land trades that undervalued public land or overvalued private land may have cost taxpayers more than $12 million. In one instance, a landowner (unidentified by the GAO) acquired 110 acres of federal land in Clark County, Nevada, appraised at $1.3 million, and sold them for $5.6 million. The GAO report led Representative George Miller (D-Calif.) to call for a moratorium on all land exchanges.

Congress is unlikely to impose such a moratorium, and many public-land managers fear losing land swaps. "If you take away agencies' ability to exchange land," says one, "you've taken away one of very few tools we have to consolidate public land. We need to improve the exchange process, not get rid of it."

If not by land swap, the government is left to consolidate public land through outright purchase, although it chronically lacks the revenue to do so. Environmental land trusts sometimes pick up the slack, buying up inholdings in order to turn them over to public agencies. Since 1993, for instance, the Oregon-based Wilderness Land Trust has purchased more than 10,000 acres of private land within 30 wilderness areas. And this spring, in the biggest land transaction in California history, the Wildlands Conservancy purchased more than 400,000 acres of private land in the Mojave Desert, subsequently transferring it to the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management.

Theoretically, the federal government should have some $900 million a year for land acquisition through the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is financed by revenues from offshore oil-drilling leases. But Congress regularly pilfers the fund for other pet projects, leaving only $200 million-"and that's in a good year," says Mark Pearson, chair of the Sierra Club's Wildlands Protection Committee. The biggest reason for continued wilderness extortion, he says, is that "land managers can't snap up these parcels because Congress has withheld the money." Without that ability, paying off Chapman and other speculators will just perpetuate the cycle. "Look what he did with the West Elk," says George Nickas, director of Wilderness Watch. "He took the money and bought ten more inholdings. We can't allow people like that to blackmail the American public."

Searching for alternatives to land exchanges and buyouts, agencies sometimes try to discourage developers by refusing overland access to their properties. Unfortunately, the federal legislation on inholdings is vague on the question of access, and many managers are reluctant to deny it because they are afraid of being sued.

Groups like the Wilderness Land Trust and Wilderness Watch believe the government should have broader powers to acquire inholdings by eminent domain. "If a proposed use is not compatible with wilderness, the government ought to condemn the land," says Nickas. "We do it all the time--for sewers, pipelines, highways. Wilderness is every bit as important to the public interest."
by Adrienne Hall


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