Vail Daily column: Land exchanges a lengthy process
February 17, 2016
In my two years working in the valley, I've periodically taken to these pages to update you on a number of things that your Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District has been working on. Often, the topic of land exchanges with the Forest Service has been discussed in newspaper articles and editorials, at town council meetings and in conversations around Eagle County.
So, what exactly is a land exchange? Why does the Forest Service do them? And how? Today, I'd like to dive a little deeper into this tool that we use for adjusting and improving federal landownership patterns in order to better serve the public.
As is the case with every action, program or project that the Forest Service administers, our authority to carry out land exchanges is derived from specific laws. In this case, the General Exchange Act of 1922, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, the Code of Federal Regulations and Forest Service policy are the foundation that gives the Forest Service the ability to accept or acquire lands outside the boundaries of current National Forests.
For reasons of fairness and transparency, these laws and policies have made the land exchange process an intricate and multifaceted procedure — there are 64 steps involved, and years usually pass before any exchange is finalized. While I don't intend to detail these steps for you today, I do want to highlight a few key requirements for all land exchange proposals:
• Discretionary nature. The Forest Service is not required to exchange any federal lands. Therefore, land exchanges are a purely discretionary and voluntary action on the part of the agency. Public interest, budget and our current workload are all important factors in determining whether or not to proceed with considering a land exchange proposal.
• Determination of public interest. Perhaps the most significant requirement for a possible land exchange is that the proposed exchange must ensure that the public interest is well-served. Some of these considerations include meeting the needs of local economies, protecting fish and wildlife habitats, promoting multiple-use values and determining whether or not a land exchange might conflict with adjacent federal land management goals. The importance of public interest cannot be overstated, and this is the driving factor for the Forest Service as we undergo this process.
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• Value for value. Lands in a land exchange are appraised and compared on a value for value basis and not necessarily acre for acre — a key tenet that ensures the public interest remains well-served.
• Environmental analysis and public involvement. A full environmental analysis must be conducted with every proposed land exchange. This analysis helps the agency determine whether or not there are viable alternatives (e.g. implementing, modifying or denying the proposed exchange) and ensures that a robust public-involvement process is undertaken. This step in the process is vital, as the input received from the public and other interested parties helps us in determining the final course of action.
While these are just a few of the requirements of the land exchange process, it's also important to stress that a formal proposal is required before the Forest Service will consider taking any action on a land exchange. Prior to receiving a formal proposal, an entity is considered to be in the proposal development phase. We regularly field formal and informal land exchange proposals, and many of them, for one reason or another, do not meet requirements. In those cases, either the proposal development process continues, or their proposal is denied.
I realize that this article doesn't explain the land exchange process in great detail, so if you have questions or would like to know more about this process, please feel free to call or stop by our office. I do, however, hope that this brief overview conveys some of the legal responsibility that we have to ensure each proposal is considered in a manner which is comprehensive, fair and an overall benefit to the public — a responsibility that the Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District takes seriously.
I'm confident that conversations regarding public land management will continue throughout the valley, and I welcome any further discussion. Thank you all for your interest and engagement in your National Forests.
Aaron Mayville is acting district ranger for the U.S. Forest Service's Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District.