A coalition of conservation groups today filed a federal lawsuit to stop a U.S. Forest Service land exchange that would transfer 120 acres of Caribou-Targhee National Forest lands at the base of Grand Targhee ski resort to a private developer. The exchange, if completed, would unleash major new development at Grand Targhee, which borders the Jedediah Smith Wilderness only four miles from Grand Teton National Park. The Grand Targhee area provides important habitat for elk, grizzly bears, and wolverines. The exchange would also allow the resort's owners to reap a huge financial windfall at taxpayer expense.
The lawsuit cites the Forest Service's adherence to a December 2000 contract with the ski area developer that committed the government to conduct the exchange at outdated values, even while the Forest Service purported to reanalyze the exchange and consider public comments.
"The Forest Service's supposed reconsideration of the Grand Targhee land exchange was a sham process with a predetermined outcome," said Earthjustice lawyer Tim Preso, who is representing the conservation groups. "The Forest Service could not objectively consider whether a gold rush of private development in this crucial wildlife area is a good idea, when throughout its decision-making process it was under contract to complete the exchange."
"The Forest Service didn't generate a new and better-informed decision about how to manage our public lands," added Marv Hoyt of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. "It just generated more paperwork to support its earlier decision to convert this spectacular public wildlife area into a sprawling private ski resort on the west side of the Tetons."
The Forest Service also rejected public requests for a new appraisal of the federal land to be traded, which is only an hour's drive away from some the nation's most expensive real estate in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The agency's existing appraisal of the Grand Targhee property dates from November 2000. A review of that appraisal by the accounting firm of Price Waterhouse Coopers demonstrated that it undervalued the federal lands and that its valuations are outdated. Nevertheless, the Forest Service claimed the Grand Targhee exchange values were set by its December 2000 agreement with the developer, which reflected the November 2000 appraisal.
"You or I wouldn't sell our house on the basis of a two-year-old appraisal, but the Forest Service is trading away millions of dollars worth of public land on the basis of a two-year old appraisal," said Pam Lichtman of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance. "It doesn't make any sense."
The Forest Service originally approved the Grand Targhee exchange in December 2000, but that decision was invalidated in an August 2001 ruling by federal District Judge B. Lynn Winmill. Judge Winmill found that the Forest Service failed to legitimately analyze the exchange, because the agency glossed over the substantial development at Grand Targhee that would be propelled by the exchange. He called upon the Forest Service to reconsider the alternative of not going forward with the exchange.
In response, the Forest Service emerged with a supplemental environmental impact statement and new decision in November 2002. Yet even as it purported to reconsider the exchange, the Forest Service continued to adhere to a December 2000 contract with the ski area developer that required the agency to proceed with the exchange. Not surprisingly given this contractual commitment, the Forest Service's new decision authorized precisely the same exchange that Judge Winmill invalidated.
"By honoring agreements made with the resort developer that support a land exchange, the Forest Service has further eroded the public's confidence in this EIS process," said Lou Parri of Citizens for Teton Valley. "Actions by the Forest Service that include biased decision making, use of an outdated appraisal and failure to adequately examine growth impacts to justify their decision, can't be tolerated."
The lawsuit asks the court to prohibit the exchange until the Forest Service conducts an unbiased analysis of the Grand Targhee land swap and obtains a fresh appraisal of the federal property.
The groups filing include Earthjustice, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Citizens for Teton Valley, Wyoming Outdoor Council, and the Sierra Club.
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