Greer Coaltion Inc. and the Center for Biological Diversity v. U.S. Forest Service et al.

 

On September 16, 2009, the Forest Service approved the Black River Land Exchange, a decision which has been and continues to be plagued with inconsistencies, shoddy analysis and an almost willful neglect of the public interest.  The Center has filed a lawsuit to stop the Forest Service from handing our national forest lands over to private development.    

This land exchange originated in 2002 when Herb Owens, a private property owner in Greer, Arizona, sought to exchange 396.35 acres of his private land for 337.74 acres of federal land that currently is part of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.  

The predominant concern regarding this land exchange is that it will lead to development of land that currently belongs to the public.  This concern is amplified by the fact that Mr. Owens acquired 189 acres of federal land through another land exchange in 1993, and that land is contiguous with the land at issue in this case as well as another 160 acres previously purchased by Mr. Owens.  

In short, this means that if the proposed land exchange goes through, Mr. Owens will own well over 700 contiguous acres of prime land available for development in what was previously pristine national forest.

The first time the Forest Service approved the Black River Land Exchange in 2004, the Center stepped in to fight it because the Forest Service refused to consider the impact that potential development of the exchanged land would have on the surrounding area.

The Forest Service argued that future development was merely speculative because Mr. Owens had signed a non-binding statement saying he had no current plans to develop the property.  On December 6, 2004, the Administrative Appeals Officer at the Forest Service agreed with the Center that Mr. Owens' non-binding statement did not relieve the Forest Service from considering the potential for development of federal lands once they were conveyed into private ownership.

The Forest Service then performed a second evaluation of the land exchange and ultimately approved the exchange for a second time in December of 2005.  Once again, the Forest Service's analysis was flawed and the Center filed a lawsuit in federal district court.  The court ruled against the Forest Service and for a third time, the Forest Service was required to re-evaluate its findings.  The subject of the current lawsuit is this third evaluation.

Despite all of the opportunities the Forest Service had to perform a proper analysis for this land exchange, its third and current evaluation continues to be fatally flawed.

Among the numerous problems with the current evaluation are: undervaluing the federal property; using an unrealistic development scenario to evaluate the reasonably foreseeable impacts; doing an inadequate evaluation of impacts that groundwater pumping would have on nearby wells, as well as the riparian areas, and threatened and endangered species; and a failure to demonstrate that the proposed exchange is in the public interest as required by federal law.

The Center is now back in federal court fighting to ensure that the Forest Service can't simply trade away national forest lands that belong to us all without first fully evaluating the impact of that decision and making sure that the land received in exchange fully compensates the taxpayers.

A federal district court judge ruled in favor of the Forest Service on cross motions for summary judgment but the Center has appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals has scheduled oral argument for February 13, 2012.