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GAO says land swap with Ricks improper

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Federal investigators with the Government Accounting Office have also targeted a land exchange between the U.S. Forest Service and Ricks College that investigators say may not have served the public interest and could have cost taxpayers $29,000 more than it should have.

The land exchange in southeastern Idaho involved lands owned by the college that the Forest Service wanted because they were environmentally sensitive wetlands and grizzly bear habitat. In return, the Forest Service gave the LDS Church-owned college federal lands on which several recreational residences had been built.

At the request of the residents, the Forest Service retained all future development rights for a large common area. That restriction, which reduced the appraised value of the land by $29,000, was contrary to the federal agency's policy for land exchanges that specifies it is undesirable to retain restrictions on lands transferred out of federal ownership because it "connotes a responsibility to enforce the restrictions in perpetuity," the report said.

At least one federal official raised concerns about the retention of development rights but was told the trade was too far along to change the terms.

The Forest Service maintained that without the restriction, an additional 50 homes could have been built on the property, thereby adversely impacting wildlife and surrounding federal lands.

The Forest Service also responded that although maintaining development rights is "undesirable" under its policy, it also noted that it is not prohibited. In this case, the restrictions were warranted and served the public interest.