Clearing the Checkerboard:

The Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land are orchestrating a $510 million deal to acquire approximately 500 square miles now owned by Plum Creek Timber. The land will then be conveyed to the U.S. Forest Service, erasing the area's "checkerboard" pattern of public and private ownership that is leftover from Western expansion. As the NYT explains:

The lands in this case were considered especially valuable, and vulnerable to the effects of development, because most were in fragments — 640-acre squares interspersed in a checkerboard with public lands mostly owned by the Forest Service. Checkerboard ownership is a legacy of the railroad-building of the late 1800s and early 1900s, when the government offered millions of acres of the West as an incentive to companies laying track through Montana and other Rocky Mountain states.

The purchases, which are to be completed in phases over the next two years, with most of the land then conveyed to the Forest Service or other government agencies over the next decade, will essentially fill in the checkerboard, [the Nature Conservancy's William] Ginn said. . . .

Creating a more continuous fabric of lands in public ownership also helps the Forest Service in its firefighting duties, since a filled-in checkerboard reduces access issues in reaching interior areas of the forest.

Mr. Ginn said that while long-term protection is the goal, the deal also includes provisions for some continued timber cutting on the lands, with logs sold at market rates to Plum Creek lumber mills in Montana over the next 15 years. He said that third-party-certified sustainable forestry standards would be used in choosing how much to cut and where, and that overall timber cutting would decline.

The deal will be financed by a combination of private donations and a "tax-credit bond mechanism" created by the Farm bill.

There are definite ecological and forest management benefits to clearing the checkerboard-pattern of ownership on western lands, but I am skeptical turning the lands in question over to the federal government is the best way to preserve them. Federal lands are often atrociously managed -- particularly in comparison to their state or non-governmental counterparts. Among other things, the federal government has a tendency to devote disproportionate funds to land acquisition at the expense of land management. The silver-linings in this deal are that a single, contiguous owner is better than the status quo, and much of the acquisition is to be financed privately.