From 51 to 86 to lawsuit

Environmental groups were willing to buy a choice piece of public land long used for hiking and biking, but instead the BLM turned it over to a developer

PUBLIC LAND FOR THE PEOPLE<br>Randy Hauser and Susan Weale are members of the Shasta Resources Council, a group formed in 2005 expressly to preserve Area 51 for public use. The SRC is one of the groups suing to overturn the BLM’s trade that gave the land to a developer. The yellow signs on the trees behind them warn people not to trespass on the land, which until recently had been used for hiking and biking for five decades.

Randy Hauser and Susan Weale are members of the Shasta Resources Council, a group formed in 2005 expressly to preserve Area 51 for public use. The SRC is one of the groups suing to overturn the BLM’s trade that gave the land to a developer. The yellow signs on the trees behind them warn people not to trespass on the land, which until recently had been used for hiking and biking for five decades.

Photo By Christy Lochrie

On three different occasions—in 2002, 2003 and 2005—community groups tried to buy or otherwise obtain Area 51 for continued public use, and each time the Bureau of Land Management did not respond. Instead it traded the property to a land speculator.

It’s easy to miss Rex Cooper’s street. But once you find Victoria Drive, nestled in the hills just outside Redding’s western city limits, his house is easy to spot. A 35-year-old blue van that advertises his business, The Bike Shop, gives it away.

The 61-year-old mountain-biking enthusiast bought the house, where he raised two now-adult sons, because the street dead-ends into what locals have jokingly dubbed “Area 51,” after the famous mystery spot in Nevada. It’s a hard-to-find 216-acre parcel of Bureau of Land Management property that’s threaded by some five miles of biking and hiking trails and intersected by Salt Creek, a tributary of the Sacramento River, in which hikers have spotted chinook salmon, steelhead trout and rainbow trout.

“It really meant a lot to us to have BLM access,” Cooper said. “We always thought that was a really nice retreat to go and walk. It’s more than just mountain biking; it’s a really nice preserve.”

But now “No Trespassing” signs warn off would-be hikers and bikers, many of whom have explored the one-time gold-mining region near State Route 299 for decades. The BLM, in a controversial land swap in October 2007, traded the property to Brent Owen and his assistant Kimberly Hawkins for an isolated 566-acre parcel of timberland along the Trinity River in Trinity County.

In doing so, the agency sidelined grass-roots groups’ offers to buy and preserve Area 51 for public use. Now those groups—the Shasta Resources Council, the Shasta Coalition for Preservation of Public Land, both based in Redding, and the Sacramento River Preservation Trust, in Chico—have filed a federal lawsuit that challenges the deal.

“What we want is for the decision to trade it to be reversed and for [Area 51] to be made available to the public,” said Randy Hauser, of the Shasta Resources Council, who estimates the suit will cost upward of $25,000 to $100,000. “The bottom line is that a nonprofit made a bona-fide offer to the BLM and it was ignored.”

The Sacramento River Preservation Trust joined the suit out of concern for Salt Creek should Area 51 be developed and because the BLM didn’t allow a grass-roots group to buy and preserve the land for the public.

“I think it’s just unfortunate that there wasn’t a better way to accommodate the concerns of locals,” said John Merz, the SRPT’s president. “Nobody likes to sue. A lot of money gets spent that could have been used to buy the property.”

Area 51 is an oddly shaped parcel about halfway between Redding and Old Shasta. It’s a swath of undeveloped foothills land largely surrounded by large-lot homes dotted among the trees. As Redding expands westward, more and more people are looking for this kind of semi-rural lifestyle.

Locals have been using it for hiking and biking for decades, as long as 50 years, and in that time they have developed an elaborate system of trails, some for hiking, others for biking, that together provide a corridor between Redding and the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area.

They have known for years of the BLM’s plans to swap out the property and have been trying since at least 2006 to buy the property. The Shasta Resources Council offered to pay $900,000 and to secure it with loan guarantees, which would be paid for with fundraisers and grants.

But cash was no good at this table. The BLM prefers to swap property rather than to buy and sell it on the open market.

Steve Anderson, field manager for the BLM’s Redding office, explains it this way: A small budget nixes most agency land purchases. And while it might make sense to sell property, which would add cash to the BLM’s coffers and increase agency buying power, it’s not that simple when it comes to federal accounting.

If the BLM sells a parcel, the cash melts faster than a Popsicle on a July day in Redding. The first 4 percent is siphoned off to the state BLM office; 10 percent goes to the U.S. Park Service; 10 percent to the Fish and Wildlife Service; and 20 percent pours into the tills of the Department of Agriculture.

Then there’s another wild card, Anderson said: The entire cash sale could, potentially, get funneled directly to the U.S. Treasury and bypass the BLM kitty altogether.

“So we [hypothetically] took a check for the property,” Anderson said. “That check doesn’t go to the BLM Redding Field Office to use it any way you want.”

In other words, the BLM is trying to protect its own budget. This makes it tricky for local groups to save a chunk of property slated for the agency’s cut list—unless they have or purchase a piece of property that the BLM is interested in acquiring and preserving.

Susan Weale, of the Shasta Coalition for the Preservation of Public Land and the Shasta Resources Council, said her organizations tried to get into the land swap game by offering to purchase the Trinity property from then-owner Joe Rice. The offer was declined.

But Owen, also lives on Victoria Drive, not far from Cooper, and who had worked with Rice on the swap, was able to deal his way into the poker game by somehow purchasing the Trinity property from Rice for $763,000. He then swapped it for Area 51.

Opponents of the swap are mystified that the BLM traded a critical piece of land at the intersection of wilderness and urban development that is highly used by thousands of people for an inaccessible property under no threat of development.

After someone allegedly removed survey stakes from the Area 51 property, Owen hoisted “No Trespassing” signs, called the culprits “eco-terrorists,” redubbed the land Area 86 and promised to prosecute trespassers.

Owen, a developer whose Redding foundation spent $60,000 to improve the Hornbeck Trail on BLM property in 2007, said he has no development plans for Area 51. His critics don’t buy that claim.

“Why would anyone who’s a developer not develop it?” the SRC’s Hauser said. “It’s like a butcher standing with a white apron and cleaver next to a fresh beef carcass and saying, ‘I have no plans to cut up this carcass.’ “

Anderson, the BLM field manager, denies any correlation between Owen’s trail development gift and the land swap. But on the development front, a January 2005 letter from the Shasta Department of Resources office to Rice laid out preliminary development plans for 59 housing sites on the property, ranging in size from two to 30 acres. The letter was in response to Rice’s request for a review of a potential general-plan zoning amendment.

“I think it in my best interest not to comment,” said Owen, who has historically declined to talk with reporters about the deal.

However, in an April 8 letter to the Shasta Community Services District, which supplies water to the Area 51 region, Owen requested that the board approve water meters to the property for 34 households. Continuing, Owen writes: “Before people start wildly speculating about this … water request, there is absolutely no proposed development! Water transfers are apparently available now and it is unknown if they will be available in the future.”

Meanwhile, the lawsuit is going forward.

“Why should we be denied the opportunity to buy because they are required to share some of the revenue with other federal agencies?” Hauser said. “How is that in any way a justification? … We’re offering to pay the federal government $900,000 to buy Area 51.”

“We just really feel let down,” said Cooper, the mountain biker who lives on Victoria Drive. “It was a very secure feeling to have that in your neighborhood. It’s like any of the other places that are preserved. You just expect it to be there.”