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Saturday, December 11, 2010

Land Exchanges: Bureau of Land Management Process and Issues

Carol Hardy Vincent
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) conducts land exchanges with other land owners to acquire and dispose of land. The agency is authorized to conduct land exchanges under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) of 1976. Additionally, Congress sometimes enacts legislation authorizing and governing specific land exchanges.

FLPMA governs how administrative exchanges are to occur. For instance, land exchanges must be in the public interest, and the federal and nonfederal lands in the exchange are to be in the same state. Further, the values of the lands exchanged are to be equal, although payments to equalize value may be made under specified terms. Typically, BLM and the other parties share equally in the administrative costs. While some exchanges involve single parcels, assembled land exchanges consist of a consolidation of multiple parcels for one or more exchanges over time. Lands acquired by BLM by exchange become public lands managed under existing authorities.

The land exchange process generally has five phases: development of an exchange proposal, feasibility evaluation, processing and documentation, decision analysis and approval, and title transfer. Each phase typically involves multiple actions. For example, processing and documentation includes title review; public notice and comment; identification and resolution of environmental issues; assessments of mineral, cultural, and other resources; Native American consultations; threatened and endangered species consultations; and preparation of land appraisals. The appraisal and environmental analysis often are the most challenging and timeconsuming parts of the process. Legislated exchanges generally follow this process as well, unless otherwise directed by Congress.

Some BLM land exchanges have been controversial. Concerns earlier in the decade centered on the benefits to the public, determinations of market value, and contradictions in policies and procedures. In response, BLM implemented changes to the appraisal and exchange processes. More recent government reports (in 2009) have focused on delays in appraisals and various aspects of the exchange process. First, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) examined the effectiveness of agency actions to improve exchanges and made recommendations for further improvement. Second, appropriators expressed concerns with appraisals and exchanges and directed the agencies to take certain actions and to report back to Congress on progress in making reforms. Third, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the Department of the Interior (DOI) evaluated the services of DOI’s consolidated appraisal office and issued recommendations.

In 2010, DOI and BLM implemented changes in response to the GAO, congressional, and OIG recommendations. In March, DOI sent a reform plan to congressional appropriators to improve appraisals. In May 2010, the Secretary of the Interior changed the organization and operation of the appraisal services function. Also in May 2010, BLM issued a series of instruction memoranda on land exchanges containing additional policies and guidance. Other reforms are ongoing.

A key issue for Congress is the extent to which the reforms to the exchange process and appraisal function will address perceived problems and improve land transactions. Another issue for Congress is whether to discontinue BLM’s administrative exchanges on the grounds that they have been problematic and inherently difficult, and in some cases have been superseded by newer BLM authorities to sell or exchange land. Supporters continue to view administrative exchanges as useful to change the “checkerboard” pattern of land ownership in the West, and to increase the efficiency of land management while decreasing management costs.

Date of Report: November 29, 2010
Number of Pages: 17
Order Number: R41509
Price: $29.95

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