Trading Away The West -- Property-Rights Proponent Backing Park Service Into Pricey Land Swap

It could cost taxpayers a pile of money and sensitive land to prevent development of a waterfront slope near tiny Stehekin at the north tip of Lake Chelan.

STEHEKIN, Chelan County - A property owner's proposal to build condominiums on a scenic precipice in this remote recreation area might look like yet another scheme to force a lopsided land trade on the federal government.

But this time, there's more at stake than a quick profit: It's the latest volley in a broad battle over private-property rights, in a county known for defending them.

Stehekin is a historic homesteading settlement on the northern tip of Lake Chelan, accessible only by air, water or long trek across the Cascade Mountains. The town's 100 residents live in a valley carved into some of the state's most beautiful and rugged terrain - an area so stunning that the federal government turned it into a protected National Recreation Area.

Local landowners have learned to live with the forces of nature in their midst, but many resent big government's looming presence.

Among them is William Stifter, an Eastern Washington physician who has proposed construction of 13 detached "cabin-style" condominiums on a prominent 22-acre slope and an electric tram to hoist occupants to their units - unless the National Park Service buys him out with a combination of cash and appreciably flatter public land elsewhere in the valley.

The Park Service, which doesn't want Stifter's property developed, appears likely to strike a deal.

Such eco-bargaining is increasingly common in the West, where speculators have learned they can extract money and land from the government by threatening to develop even the most remote of private holdings inside federal wilderness. A recent Seattle Times investigation of federal land exchanges documented several cases and the systemic problems that allowed them. Time after time, the investigation found, the public has ended up on the short end of land trades.

Cash and land

In the Stehekin Valley case, Stifter is likely to walk away with more than $1 million in cash and land, though the details are still under negotiation. He paid just $150,000 for the property eight years ago.

But Stifter insists he's not motivated by profiting from the exchange, which was the Park Service's idea. He says he's driven by a desire to stop the government's march through the valley and to reclaim land from the feds - whether by developing dormant private land such as his hillside or using it as leverage to acquire public land.

"For many years, there was an unwritten attempt by the National Park Service to eliminate the community," Stifter said. "At one time, there were 1,700 acres of private property here. Now there are 459."

Stifter wants to reverse the trend. That's why he says he won't take cash alone from the Park Service for his property. Any deal must include as much or more land in the valley than he'd give up.

Despite critics' skepticism about the viability of his condo project, Stifter insists it's not a bluff. Park Service officials say the development would be out of character for the area, a strain on community resources and a high-maintenance headache, and they're not taking any chances. Talks are under way.

"It's not my job to play cards with the public interest," said Bill Paleck, superintendent of the North Cascades National Park Service Complex, which includes the recreation area.

Dreamers and schemers

Environmental-watchdog groups, meanwhile, are fearful that a lucrative deal for Stifter will inspire a rash of like attempts to extract money or land from the Park Service.

"There are a lot of people who are dreamers and schemers up there," said David Fluharty of the North Cascades Conservation Council.

That prospect is all the more real because Stifter's sentiments about the Park Service and the federal government are shared by members of the Chelan County Board of Adjustment, which has the power to approve developments on private holdings within the National Recreation Area.

Chelan County led the grass-roots revolt against the state's Growth Management Act, refusing for six years to adopt all its mandatory development restrictions. Some members of the Board of Adjustment remain vehement property-rights advocates. One compared the federally controlled environment in Stehekin to "Tiananmen Square."

Against that background, the board approved Stifter's project over the strong objections of the Park Service, environmentalist groups and a local, anti-development faction. The decision guaranteed the value of Stifter's land would skyrocket and backed the Park Service into a corner.

The path to that uncomfortable corner winds through three decades of uneasy and sometimes hostile relations between the Park Service and the community. It includes the Park Service's missed opportunity, eight years ago, to buy the slope in question for a fraction of its worth today.

Rocky relations since '68

Stehekin got its start at the turn of the century when a succession of miners, trappers, ranchers and farmers settled the area. Its spectacular beauty also drew tourists, who traveled by covered wagon to a popular waterfront hotel that's since disappeared.

The Park Service didn't enter the picture until 1968, when Congress included the valley in a new 62,000-acre National Recreation Area.

Environmentalists within and outside the community welcomed the federal protection. Despite the subsequent drop in private acreage, Fluharty said, the valley's year-round population has actually tripled - and so has the number of homes.

But even supporters say the agency didn't show much sensitivity in the way it went about establishing control of the area, often imposing rules in a heavy-handed manner on a culture used to creating its own.

The Park Service took control of the only roads in town, assigned armed rangers to patrol the area and even adopted parking regulations to the dismay of many residents who had brought cars in by barge.

"They made it very onerous - telling you how you have to obtain your firewood, how you get rid of your waste, how you use the roads," said Stifter, who vacationed at Stehekin for years before buying land.

Family fights erupted over whether to sell off holdings to the Park Service. Agency officials sometimes, in the past, worked out secret deals with individual family members who wanted to sell - a practice that only made residents more distrustful of the agency, said Regional Lands Chief Rick Wagner.

Wagner says he doesn't allow secret deals, but their impact on the community lingers.

Among those alienated by these perceived intrusions were people who emerged as key players in the current drama.

`Like Tiananmen Square'

Hilda Byrd, a member of one of the community's oldest families, had to sell her land when her husband died. She talked to the Park Service about making a trade: her land on the slope for cash plus some Park Service land that once had been family land. It had been lost in one of those secret deals, Wagner said.

The talks went nowhere: Byrd felt insulted by the restrictions officials wanted to put on the federal property and by the value the agency put on her land.

So she sold to Stifter.

Wagner said the agency appraised her land at $115,000, and Stifter paid $150,000. Now the value is likely to reach as high as $1 million or more for the Park Service to acquire just part of the property.

Morgan Picton, a Board of Adjustment member, also had a run-in with the Park Service. He said officials tried to cheat him out of a real-estate commission several years ago by negotiating with his client behind his back. But he said he's even more incensed by what the agency has done to the community.

"When I used to go there in high school, there were no police. If you could physically operate a car, you could drive one regardless of your age," he said. "Now it feels like Tiananmen Square. You either ride the Park Service bus or you rent a bicycle. This isn't the Stehekin I know. This is the politically correct Stehekin."

The Park Service blew the whistle on a longtime resident who began stabilizing the shoreline of his property without the proper permits - an action appreciated by environmentalists but considered an appalling intrusion by Picton and others in the property-rights crowd.

So when Stifter's project came along, it came as no surprise to anyone that the Park Service raised objections - and that the Board of Adjustment approved it.

"The development was very responsible," said board member Zane Poltz, who owns land in Stehekin. "The Park doesn't want any private land. . . . I think the community was there long before the park was there and has a right to stay."

"Stifter was going over and above what the requirements were to make the project harmonious with the hillside," Picton said. "The end result was better than if the park department owned the damn property."

Park Superintendent Paleck also praised Stifter's efforts. But he said the agency's concerns about the development are legitimate. While it's physically possible to build a development on the steep slope, the complex infrastructure will require perpetual maintenance to guard against pollution and environmental damage, he said. For example, the development's sewage would have to be piped downhill to a private treatment facility, then back up to a high septic field, he said.

Still, Paleck said, he's trying to resolve the agency's differences with Stifter without confrontation. Paleck took over as superintendent six years ago and says he's made a real effort to repair relations with the community. He gets good marks from Stifter and other property-rights advocates - a minor miracle for a federal bureaucrat.

But Paleck's efforts have put him on the wrong side of environmentalist groups and the Stehekin Alert, a local coalition that's fighting the development. They're afraid he'll give away too much.

Key parcel not part of trade

Helen Wagenvoord, a representative of the National Parks and Conservation Association, questioned the wisdom of a trade in light of the dubious economics of developing property that will require barges, helicopters and cables to get construction equipment on site.

"You look at the slope - and I don't want to spend too much time saying how can he build on it, because he got permits and can play that card - but here's property that's going to be economically and logistically hard to develop," Wagenvoord said. "He (Stifter) will be surrendering that for some prime development area."

And, she points out, under the proposed trade, the public won't even get a key part of the parcel: the acreage directly on the lake, along a prominent finger of land known as "Logger's Point." Stifter is keeping that for a family home.

The Park Service hasn't come up with a firm trade proposal yet. However, agency officials have identified 50 acres of public land they consider expendable - land that includes a large swath of bear and spotted-owl habitat on an undeveloped stretch of the main valley road.

Paleck said the Park Service would allow development on that land, if traded. But Myra Bergman Ramos, a second-generation resident of Stehekin, said it makes no sense to simply trade one sensitive spot for another.

"I'm not against an exchange, but this is one of the most magical spots in the valley," said Ramos, whose father, noted scenic photographer Paul Bergman, settled here after World War II and supported creation of the National Park and Recreation Area.

Adding to concerns: The agency has agreed to use an appraisal submitted by Stifter for the value of his land. The agency is using its own appraiser to evaluate the public lands, even though it's not generally considered good practice to use different appraisers for each side of a trade.

Wagner said he decided to go ahead with the arrangement to save money and time, after determining that Stifter's appraisal met federal standards.

Cutting corners, whether to save money or keep the peace, is dangerous, Wagenvoord said.

"Land exchanges are such a slippery slope," said Wagenvoord. "They need to be handled gingerly - because we're giving away National Park Service lands."

Deborah Nelson's phone message number is 206-464-2145. Her e-mail address is: