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Westerners upset by proposed horse-trading of federal land

On the surface of things, it looks like nothing more than a shuffling of the bureaucratic deck. Two federal agencies, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service, want to trade 35 million acres under their jurisdictions throughout the Western United States. They say it would streamline management and save costs.

But the proposal is running into unexpectedly heavy opposition. This week the two agencies are sponsoring public hearings in areas that would be affected by the exchange. Congressional hearings were held on the proposals in March, and more are scheduled for September.

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``I've had lots of feedback from my constituents on this, and almost all of it has been negative,'' says Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R) of Wyoming, whose state would see 3 million acres of land presently switch from Forest Service jurisdiction to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

Environmentalists charge that the exchange could enable the Reagan administration to withhold wilderness designation for as much as 9.5 million acres of land, thus opening it to timber and mining interests. Many Western ranchers, whose herds graze on US government lands, are dismayed at the prospect of dealing with new and unfamiliar federal management.

Congress would ultimately have to approve such a plan. But opposition from lawmakers there -- many of whom say they're automatically leery of any far-reaching environmental strategy from the Reagan administration -- is considerable as well. Congressional critics note that the projected annual savings from such an action -- about $31 million after an initial expenditure of $45 million -- amount to about 2 percent of the combined budget of the two agencies. Critics say there are less drastic ways to cut costs.

``The whole thing is being pitched as an economy move,'' warns Rep. Les AuCoin (D) of Oregon. ``But it could drastically . . . alter the characteristics of some very important natural resources.''

The interchange proposal grew out of a Carter administration attempt to combine the Forest Service and BLM into a single agency of the federal Interior Department. But the idea fell through. ``There was no way the Forest Service was going to let itself become part of Interior,'' says Frank Gregg, who was BLM director at the time.

So an idea surfaced to at least reassign lands managed by the two agencies. The concept later received a powerful boost by the President's Private Sector Survey on Cost Control in the Federal Government and from a report issued last December by Congress's General Accounting Office.

The BLM manages 177 million acres and the Forest Service about 169 million, much of which is scrambled in a quiltlike manner across the Western US. The situation often means BLM and Forest Service offices exist side by side in the same town, with duplicative administrative procedures and sometimes contradictory land-management practices.

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According to the draft proposal, the BLM would trade 18.3 million of its acres for 16 million acres of Forest Service land. The number of towns hosting offices of both agencies would drop from 71 to 22.

But regional opposition has arisen over which of the two agencies should remain.

``Everybody's saying, `The concept is great, but stay out of my backyard,' '' says BLM director Robert F. Burford. In Wyoming, for example, a furor has been stirred by plans to turn over the Big Horn National Forest to the BLM.

``The BLM simply is not as adept at managing mixed-use lands as the Forest Service is,'' says Rep. Dick Cheney (R) of Wyoming.

Officials in Oregon, on the other hand, oppose plans to turn over much of that state's prime Douglas fir acreage, now under the BLM, to the Forest Service. The Oregon & California Railroad lands, as the timber areas are called, are a lucrative source of income for local counties. Officials say the Forest Service's more management-intensive practices could lower revenues for local counties.

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