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Parcels ready for swapPosted at 9:30 a.m. January 9
Photo by George Lane IR Staff - The Ward Ranch, near the town of Lakeside, is the focus of a $3 million land swap brokered by the Bureau of Land Management.

The Bureau of Land Management is poised to trade almost 6,500 acres of federal land for 970 acres of private property across from Lakeside marina on Hauser Lake.

If the exchange goes through as expected, the federal agency will have swapped a total of about 8,000 acres of BLM land for the 2,000-acre Ward Ranch, making that formerly private property public. The BLM lands used in the exchange were scattered throughout about 10 counties and included about 100 parcels ranging in size from 1 to 920 acres.

The total dollar value of the swap will be about $3 million, although the BLM only needs to come up with about $63,000 in cash to make up the difference in land values.

The BLM lands range in price from $90 per acre for some parcels in Gallatin, Jefferson and Broadwater counties to $2,156 per acre for 11 acres near Birdseye in Lewis and Clark County.

While the exchange may seem lopsided acreage-wise and the prices bargain basement, the swap actually is fairly equal as far as the value of the land is concerned, according to Gary Beals, a BLM realty specialist.

"I know that initially, when you look at the appraised values, it might seem (disproportionate)," Beals said on Tuesday. "But when you look at the constraints, it's pretty balanced."

Beals said the main reason for some of the seemingly low prices - the average per-acre value is $407, in a state where it's not unusual for residential acreage to go for $3,000 an acre - is that many of the properties are surrounded by private lands, have no legal access and are in remote areas.

Sweet deal?

At least one rancher whose property encircles some of the BLM acreage believes the land actually is overpriced, and is fairly worthless even for grazing or most other uses. However, the ranchers are apt to purchase the land in order to avoid access conflicts to the property in the future.

"The land I bought was about $140 an acre, and that's probably more than I will ever gain as far as grazing rights off of it," said Chris Carey, owner of the Dunn Canyon Cattle Company outside of Boulder. "That piece of ground will never pay for itself as far as I'm concerned, but it was just as easy to go ahead and purchase it at that price and save myself some headaches later.

"On two of the parcels, you can't even get a vehicle to them. One is solid rock, the other has a little grass on it but cattle won't go up there. I'm just buying it so somebody doesn't try to buy a chunk of ground to build on it and then get in a fight over access."

In addition, some of the BLM properties involved in the swap are being offered for sale at three to five times their assessed value as agricultural land. The sale price was arrived at through an appraisal process.

Still, some of the properties are fairly attractive. Eighty acres are available for $180 n or $14,400 for the parcel n south of Wolf Creek off of Sheep Creek. Almost 16 acres near Marysville can be purchased for $19,100 or about $1,200 an acre. Two of the more expensive offerings are three parcels up Grizzly Gulch, southwest of Helena, which were appraised at $1,400 to $1,667 an acre, and range in size from 37 to 55 acres.

Another 920 acres east of I-15 and north of Lincoln Road is being offered for $300 an acre. That agricultural parcel is surrounded by the Sieben Ranch, which is owned by the family of Sen. Max Baucus. The senator gave up his interest in the Sieben Ranch in 1996 as part of a restructuring of the family business.

In a subdivision across I-15 where development is occurring, a 2,600-square foot, 5-bedroom home that sits on 11 acres and was built in 1990 was appraised at $151,000 last year, with the land itself valued at $5,000 an acre.

But don't break out the checkbook just yet.

The BLM lands involved in the swap are first offered to people who hold grazing permits on the properties. If those parties aren't interested, adjacent landowners are next in line. The general public is third in line.

In the first phase of the land swap, people holding grazing permit for the properties bought 90 percent of the offerings.

History of the purchase

The historic 2,000-acre Ward Ranch was established in 1913 by Joe Ward. The ranch is prime wildlife habitat and backs up to lands administered by the BLM and Forest Service.

For approximately three years the ranch was listed for sale on the open market with an original asking price of $4.2 million, according to the BLM. Developers attempted to purchase the ranch, with one of the many ambitious proposals involved an upscale residential subdivision including cabins, condominiums, a lakeside golf course, and a boat marina.

In September 1999, Merle Good, former BLM field manager, announced that the Virginia based non-profit Conservation Fund bought the ranch from the Ward family. The Conservation Fund has refused to disclose the purchase price.

In 1999, Good said the land had an appraised value of $2.5 million, but he hoped to acquire it for $2 million, with the bulk of the funds in the form of a land exchange. Good had hoped to close on the deal in June 2000. That schedule was a bit ambitious, and the agency didn't finalize the first phase of the exchange until June 2002.

In that phase, in exchange for the 1,582 acres of scattered BLM parcels valued at $587,100, the Conservation Fund gave the federal agency 415 acres of the ranch valued at $664,000. The BLM also purchased another 40 acres for $120,000, and the Conservation Fund "donated" another 430 acres of the ranch, valued at $688,000, for a total exchange value of $1.47 million.

The Conservation Fund immediately turned around and sold the scattered BLM parcels to cover its costs.

Phase two under way

A recent appraisal put the value of the 46 federal parcels n 6,557 acres scattered throughout Lewis and Clark, Broadwater, Jefferson, Gallatin, Silver Bow, Madison and Beaverhead counties n at $1,475,135. The value of the remaining 969 acres of the Ward Ranch is pegged at $1,437,913.

The BLM still owes $100,900 to the Conservation Fund from the Phase One exchange; with the difference in values of land involved in this swap, the BLM only has to come up with $63,678 in cash.

That money comes out of the federal general treasury, Beals said, and already has been earmarked for the Ward Ranch exchange.

Members of the Ward family who live on the property at this time will be able to continue staying on a 6.82-acre tract until they die.

Beals said he hasn't received any comments from the public on the proposed land swap. In the past, conservation groups have come out in support of the proposal because of the parcel's value to wildlife.

Examples of land being offered in exchange for the Ward Ranch:

15.9 acres near Marysville for $1,200 an acre, or $19,100

11 acres north of Birdseye for $2,156 an acre, or $24,500

120 acres amid Sieben Ranch for $600 an acre, or $27,000

74.9 acres east of Canyon Creek for $385 an acre, or $28,850

40 acres northeast of Whitehall for $90 an acre, or $3,600

160 acres southwest of Three Forks for $90 an acre, or $14,400

320 acres seven miles northeast of Logan for $218 an acre, or $69,800

160 acres in Madison County near the Sun Ranch for $496 an acre, or $79,400

8.5 acres outside of Boulder for $1,505 an acre, or $12,785

Two 40-acre parcels north of Winston for $175 an acre, or $7,000

Reporter Eve Byron can be reached at 447-4076 or by e-mail at eve.byron@helenair.com

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