Audit Rips Federal Land Trades
Groups Call for Ouster of Top BLM Appraiser
Washington, DC — A Department of Interior Inspector General (IG) audit shows the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manipulating real estate appraisals to favor private parties in Utah land deals. The audit was released today by two watchdog organizations, the Western Land Exchange Project (WLXP) and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which called for the removal of BLM’s chief appraiser.
The IG audit reviewed BLM’s attempts to obtain nearly 11,000 acres within the borders of the Red Cliff Desert Reserve in southwestern Utah, near the city of St. George. The audit found the agency’s chief appraiser, Dave Cavanaugh, overruled local appraisers, sidestepped federal standards for land valuation and allowed private parties to essentially name their price in land exchanges. The IG cited instances where Cavanaugh:
- Sharply reduced the market value of federal lands; and
- Inflated the value of private lands offered in exchange, in one case nearly a third higher than the owner’s own appraisal.
Cavanaugh’s dubious methods have been implicated in three previous audits of BLM land trades. He was responsible for the public losing more than $12 million in two land exchanges he oversaw in Nevada in the 1990s. In releasing the current audit, the groups sent a letter calling for Cavanaugh’s removal from the BLM land exchange program.
“It’s been clear for a long time that Cavanaugh’s actions are hurting the public—the fact that he’s still in his job shows how little leadership or accountability there is in the BLM,” said Western Lands Exchange Project (WXLP) director Janine Blaeloch. WLXP monitors federal land exchanges throughout the West.
The Bush Administration has nominated Kathleen Clarke to head BLM. Clarke is a former aide to Rep. Jim Hansen (R-Utah) who has carried legislation to benefit local developers in real estate dealings with the agency.
“If confirmed, this nominee should clean house in BLM’s appraisal program and critically review the punishment meted out to field appraisers who tried to follow the rules and protect taxpayers,” remarked Jeff Ruch, PEER’s executive director. PEER assists whistleblowers working within state and federal environmental agencies.
Federal land exchanges are intended to bring desirable land into public hands and relinquish “surplus” government holdings but, in the past several years, have come under increased scrutiny as several investigations have uncovered undue profits to private parties in what are supposed to be even trades.
The audit report is entitled, “Land Exchanges and Acquisitions, Bureau of Land Management Utah State Office: Independent Review Will Help Protect Integrity of Appraisal Process.”