Land Appraisal Process to Be Overhauled
WASHINGTON (AP) - The Interior Department is overhauling a much-maligned process for appraising the value of federal lands that department reviews have found cost taxpayers millions of dollars and cast doubt on land valuations.
The problems have resulted when supervisors, eager to close a deal swapping federal land with a state or private landowner, have pressured appraisers to deflate the value of the federal lands being offered.
On Thursday, Interior Secretary Gale Norton was expected to announce the creation of a separate office in which appraisers from the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Parks Service and Bureau of Reclamation will be segregated from their agency hierarchy, insulating them from political pressures.
Details of the changes were provided by an Interior Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The decision comes after numerous reports from the Interior Department Inspector General and General Accounting Office criticizing the lack of appraiser independence. Last month, a task force appointed by the department also recommended autonomy for the appraisers.
"I'm surprised they're moving this quickly," said David Bunton, executive director of the Appraisal Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps set appraisal standards. In October, the foundation issued a report that said the department's land exchange program was highly politicized and in some cases may have violated federal law.
Criticism of the appraisal process dates to 1968, when an Interior Department audit said the structure leads to pressures that "can compromise the quality and objectivity of the appraisal effort."
Last year, BLM appraisers in Utah protested a land swap in that state that would have cleared the way for a national monument in the San Rafael Swell. A document cited by one appraiser said the exchange could have cost federal taxpayers $117 million. The swap was scuttled and an internal review continues.
A 1996 report by the department's inspector general found that the failure to follow appraisal procedures in two BLM land swaps in Nevada cost taxpayers $12.3 million, and a follow-up report found taxpayers nearly lost $9 million more in another proposed exchange.
Problems were also uncovered by the inspector general as a senior BLM manager pressured appraisers to decrease the value of federal land under consideration for a southern Utah land swap intended to create a desert tortoise preserve.
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