The Big Cypress Deal

The cover story is conservation, but the Bush boys have their hands in the taxpayers' pockets again

Sam and Miles Collier died in the early 1950s, after which Barron Collier, Jr., became CEO and president of the family business. The Miles and Barron Collier families eventually split their holdings. Collier Resources Co., which manages the mineral holdings, is a partnership of the Barron Collier Co. and Collier Enterprises.

In 1974 the two families agreed to sell 560,000 acres to the federal government, which considered the water flow through that land as vital to Everglades National Park to the south. The Collier property and another 14,500 acres became Big Cypress National Preserve, so named because of the profusion of cypress trees in the area. The Colliers, however, retained the subsurface mineral rights.

During the mid-1980s the Colliers began negotiating a deal with DOI to swap about 108,000 surface acres of swampland for 68 acres of prime real estate in Phoenix. The family would retain the mineral rights. The Arizona acreage was part of a federally owned 104-acre tract beneath the Phoenix Indian School, which President Ronald Reagan had slated for closure and wanted sold. The acreage was one of the most valuable tracts in the southwestern United States, according to the General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress. Under a deal worked out by DOI and the Arizona congressional delegation, the Colliers would pay $80 million for the 68 acres -- $34.9 million cash and $45.1 million in land. (The cash was to go into a trust fund for Indian education.) It was the largest interstate federal land swap ever proposed and required congressional approval. The deal took many years to iron out, but it proved the Colliers were tenacious dealmakers who could wring the most out of disputed appraisals.

Illustration By Brian Stauffer

Rep. Morris Udall, an Arizona Democrat and chairman of the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, sponsored the swap bill, but it encountered strong opposition from fellow Democrat Rep. George Miller of California. "The federal government is in fact buying nothing," Miller declared at the time, arguing that the Florida land was already protected from development other than oil and gas -- and the Colliers would retain rights to mine that. "The fundamental defect is that this is a sweetheart deal between the Colliers and the federal government."

Another Democrat, Sidney Yates of Illinois, pronounced the swap a "windfall" for the Colliers and a "cushy, cozy contractor's contract with the Secretary of the Interior."

Critics cited a 1988 review by the GAO of the values of the Phoenix and Florida properties. The report found that the appraisal for one of the Florida tracts "could be overvalued by as much as three million dollars to four million dollars." More important, the investigators asserted that the two appraisals used by DOI for the Phoenix property did "not provide a basis to proceed with the exchange as it is proposed" because city officials had not yet decided what could be built on the site.

The plan, however, had strong support from the Arizona congressional delegation and then-governor Bruce Babbitt. The swap was approved by Congress and signed by Reagan in November 1988.

After receiving that consent, the Colliers haggled with Phoenix officials over zoning requirements for three years. Lobbyist Alfredo Gutierrez, a former Democratic Arizona state senator and Babbitt ally, helped keep negotiations open. In late 1991 the parties agreed on a deal: The Colliers would exchange 53 acres of the Phoenix Indian School land for seven prime acres of city-owned property downtown that came with no development limits.

So was it an even swap? "We cannot conclude that the Florida properties, along with the Indian trust funds of $34.9 million, equal the value of Collier's portion of the Indian School property," states a 1992 GAO study. "The Florida land, which was possibly overvalued in 1988, has not been revalued since then, and its value could have decreased, like other real estate in the United States." As for the Phoenix land, the report reiterated that it was impossible to value.

The Phoenix swap added more than 83,000 protected acres along the north and west borders of Big Cypress. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service obtained 3120 acres in 1996 for the existing Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, which is northwest of the preserve. Another 21,000 acres to the west became the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge in 1996.

The Colliers held onto the mineral rights below the acreage swapped for the Phoenix property. And they had gained a bonus: entrée into the Department of Interior. After his 1992 election, Bill Clinton appointed Babbitt as Interior secretary. The family was now connected to Babbitt not just through Gutierrez but also through Ronnie Lopez, who served as chief of staff for Babbitt while governor. Lopez had subsequently become a consultant and lobbyist in Phoenix and was enlisted by the Colliers to gain access to Babbitt.

In 1995 the Colliers broached the possibility of trading mineral rights for surplus military bases in California and Florida. According to DOI documents, officials took the pitch seriously and requested that the Interior's Minerals Management Service (MMS) in New Orleans, which specializes in offshore oil and gas evaluations, determine the rights' value. That appraisal came out at $230 million to $430 million. The DOI source claims the department didn't contract out the work -- its usual practice -- because no "reputable appraiser" would have come up with a value high enough to match the worth of surplus military bases. The MMS estimate remained secret and has never been released.

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