Las Vegas Sun

July 24, 2014

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Federal land deals are target of review

SUN STAFF AND WIRE REPORTS

WASHINGTON -- The Interior Department has launched a three-month review of all federal land exchanges across the West after receiving a report that was sharply critical of the land-swap program. The program is designed in part to trade federal public lands to private owners in exchange for more environmentally sensitive property.

Six or seven land deals in Nevada, in which federal land is traded to private owners for environmentally sensitive property, are now on hold, Nevada Bureau of Land Management officials said today.

The report on the department's Bureau of Land Management called the BLM's land exchange program highly politicized and said that the appraisal process in some cases might have violated federal law. The report, released last week, said the program was "rife with internal dissatisfaction, confusion, controversy, and outside political pressures."

At its heart, the criticism suggests that the agency has not always gotten good deals for taxpayers in land trades.

The criticism from The Appraisal Foundation, a nonprofit group Congress once enlisted to examine the troubled savings and loan industry, prompted the BLM to announce a 90-day review of all land exchanges in 12 Western states. The review has not officially begun or been defined, one BLM spokesman said today.

"We're worried about the integrity of the program," Jim Hughes, BLM's deputy director for policy and programs, said last week when the review was announced. "The integrity of the program has been challenged, and we want to be sure it is preserved."

The Department of Interior's inspector general requested the report a year ago, even though department officials suspected it would be critical of the program.

"We certainly felt it was an appropriate measure to get our house in order," BLM spokeswoman Celia Boddington said.

The foundation recommended the Justice Department investigate the exchanges because "it appears that violations of law may have occured" at least in some of the exchanges.

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