A benefit for all

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The Emerald Mountain Partnership deserves a significant amount of credit for coming up with a creative plan to preserve the 6,344-acre parcel.

There is still much to be done to facilitate the land exchange between the State Land Board and the federal Bureau of Land Management that would make preservation possible, but all sides seem to think the land swap is doable.

"It will probably take a couple of years" said Wendy Schmitzer of the Bureau of Land Management, "but we will get it done."

Such talk means the outlook for Emerald Mountain is a far better sight than it was 18 months ago, when it appeared the land board would be forced to sell the property, opening it up for development.

It is hard to argue building homes on Emerald Mountain would be in the best interest of anyone other than the developers and homeowners. However, when the Emerald Mountain Partnership tested the waters by asking residents if they would be willing to support a tax to raise $17 million to purchase and preserve the land as open space, overwhelmingly the response was "no."

That meant the Emerald Mountain Partnership would have to find another way. Thankfully, with the BLM's help, it did.

The State Land Board's job is not to preserve lands but to utilize them in a way that maximizes returns that can be used for state needs, primarily public schools. The state is currently generating about $40,000 per year off Emerald Mountain. That's not much when you consider the land is valued at $16 million.

The land board has given the Emerald Mountain Partnership until 2005 to come up with a better way than an open-market sale to generate revenue. If the local group can't do that by the deadline, the land board is practically mandated to consider selling the property.

Now the BLM has offered to swap small parcels in the area that are difficult for the agency to manage but that could be very attractive to private landowners with adjacent property. Successfully selling those properties could be equally as lucrative for the land board as selling Emerald Mountain. In exchange, the BLM would take ownership of Emerald Mountain. The BLM wants to work with the community on developing a management plan for the property if the land swap works.

It is important to remember this is not a done deal. There are some 30 to 40 landowners who will be critical to the process, and it could take years to finalize the land sales necessary to make the swap work.

But given the progress that has already been made, there is certainly reason to be optimistic. And for that we should thank the BLM, the land board and the Emerald Mountain Partnership for coming up with a plan that seemingly benefits everyone.

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