Army Finds Success in New Method of Returning Land to Civilian Use
Wild horses canter along the shores of Honey Lake.

HONEY LAKE, Calif. (Army Corps of Engineers, May 24, 2007) - It's a beautiful place, if you like your scenery wild, remote, and windswept.

Honey Lake is a shallow lake in northeastern California that forms from the drainage of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. There's not much that would take you out there, except for wilderness quiet, the view of the mountains, Indian archeological sites...

...or if you need to blow up things.

That's exactly why California deeded the 62,000-acre Honey Lake Parcel to the federal government for military use in 1933. Seventy-three years later, Honey Lake became the test-site for a unique method of returning old military land to civilian use.

For 60 years, the Army used the Honey Lake area for maneuvers, aerial bombing training, and detonating surplus explosives.

However, with the end of the Cold War and a decline in traditional combat tactics, the acreage at Honey Lake became a financial liability. By the early 1990s the Army designated the Honey Lake Parcel surplus property.

Under the original agreement between California and the Army, the state retained reversionary rights, allowing it to reclaim the Honey Lake Parcel when the Army no longer required it. However, when the property became surplus, the California State Lands Commission raised legal and environmental concerns that delayed the transfer for more than a decade.

Although soil and water sampling at Honey Lake showed no significant chemical contamination, the state remained concerned about potential unexploded ordnance, and wanted further assurances about the overall safety for public use.

On top of this, by the late 1990s and early 2000s, Congress placed increasing pressure on the Army to reduce costs, and mandated that more surplus property be placed on the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) list. For fiscal year 2003, Congress established a goal for the Army to reduce its surplus property by 100,000 acres.

So Honey Lake became an attractive property for transfer. At 62,000 acres (57,500 acres for the primary parcel and 4,500 acres for the leased OE (ordnance and explosives) parcel), Honey Lake could account for more than half of the congressionally mandated total.

But California's hesitation to take a property in need of remediation led the Army to look elsewhere for a solution.

<b>Conservation conveyance</b>

At the same time that it was pressuring the military to reduce its financial land liabilities, Congress was looking for ways to help the military facilitate the process. In December 2002, Congress enacted conservation conveyance legislation. This allows transfer of surplus military property to conservation-chartered, non-profit organizations for natural resource conservation. The organization can either retain title of the parcel, or complete environmental work and transfer the property to a state, local, or other entity for conservation purposes.

This groundbreaking legislation paved the way for conservation organizations to accept BRAC properties. In 2003 the armed forces general military law was amended to allow "Conveyance of surplus real property for natural resource conservation." Under the deed requirements, this property must be used and maintained in perpetuity for conservation of natural resources.


Conservation conveyances were a new avenue for the military to pursue, offering new advantages and new challenges. Unlike more profitable properties, a great deal of surplus military property lies in remote areas with little infrastructure or development. As a result, many of these properties retain intact ecosystems important to maintaining sustainable biodiversity and the environmental health of the region. A healthy diverse environment can often translate into economic health.

This is the case with the Honey Lake Parcel. The main advantage of the conservation conveyance legislation is that these properties are a unique opportunity for natural resource conservation, and for future public good. It allows the military to privatize aspects of clean-up and permitting and sell real estate at essentially a negative purchase price. This approach provides a way to dispose of unused property where there is no way for a development project to generate funds to address site issues. In an era where the military is under pressure to become more efficient, conservation conveyance reduces the financial liability of the armed forces.


One of the greatest challenges under the conveyance legislation is funding the transfer and remediation. Under the statute, the receiving entity cannot anticipate revenue from owning the property, except generating funds to provide environmental services. So, the normal revenue sources that would make a property attractive are excluded. Mining, timbering, or farming are not allowed. At most, the receiving party might hope to generate revenue from incidental user fees.

However, there are substantial costs in administering the transfer, coordination with non-military agencies, and other services to support the transaction. Due to this gap between cost and possible revenue, it is essential to the receiving agency that the military fund the conveyance process, including remediation and environmental services.

Besides the financial challenges, there is the question of the environmental legacy. Most former military sites have some environmental legacies and contamination issues, either soil contamination or unexploded ordnance.

In the Honey Lake OE Parcel there were both, but they were limited to a small portion of the overall property. Whatever the environmental issue, the military is legally obligated to clean up and monitor under CERCLA (the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act).

This poses a second challenge under the conservation conveyance. The military can either address the environmental issues before transfer, or fund them in the transfer process. Either way, the military cannot transfer its obligations for clean up.

In the Honey Lake Parcel, the most seriously contaminated area, the OE parcel, was not included in the 2003 transfer, but was instead granted to the Center for Urban Watershed Renewal (CUWR) under a Lease in Furtherance of Conveyance. This allowed the 57,500-acre Primary Parcel to be readied for transfer to California through expedited environmental management and conservation programs.

By dividing off the most contentious section from the whole parcel, the state was more willing to discuss the future of the Primary Parcel. The 4,500 acres in the OE Parcel will be managed and transferred under a separate timetable allowing cost effective remediation while still targeting the return of the parcel to the State of California, its original owner.


The Honey Lake transfer was a learning process. The team's application was successful because it identified the needs and interests of all involved. This was done by establishing a two-phase process divided into the Conveyance Phase and the Conservation Phase. Establishing these two processes allowed roles and responsibilities to be clearly defined and categorized, and for the team to identify tasks to be completed that would allow the Primary Parcel to transfer to California .

The Conveyance Phase focused on ensuring all relevant parties understood the conditions of the property being transferred. These included the budget negotiations, project financing, and transition planning with all stakeholders in the property transfer. The Conveyance Phase included negotiating all documentation required to carry out the transfer -- conveyance agreement, quitclaim deed, easement access, and all other documentation.

The second phase of the application process, the Conservation Phase, focused on the post-transfer work. The project team and the Army clarified and negotiated all aspects of project management, implementing the property management plan, and a system for encroachment resolution.

By separating these tasks into two phases, the Honey Lake conservation conveyance established a workable framework for future similar Army property transfers.

<b>Post-conveyance work</b>

In the post-conveyance phase, the project team's work focused on four main areas. The project management team oversaw completion of all elements. Identifying individual project-related roles and responsibilities ensured that each element of the conservation work was completed on schedule. In addition, CUWR personnel oversaw funds disbursement and task assignments to ensure each team member could carry out their tasks.

The Primary Parcel of Honey Lake was essentially "clean" and needed little remediation work on the 57,500 acres. But there were several other challenges in the conservation work. Within the Honey Lake property are several important Native American archeological sites. It was essential that these sites be preserved and studied. The project team worked with the Army and the State Historic Preservation Office to develop a plan.

In addition, the Honey Lake Basin has a variety of flora and fauna. One endangered species in particular, the Carson Wandering Skipper butterfly, flourishes at Honey Lake. The team surveyed the species and the vegetation required for its survival. The team developed reports for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and has been involved in habitat protection and enhancement with USFWS.

Conservation conveyances are complicated, with many parties involved. In the Honey Lake conveyance, these included the Army, the private sector team members from non-profit organizations and consulting companies, California, Lassen County, several other federal and state agencies, and the local community and landholders.

A major part of any conservation transaction is ensuring that needs and expectations of all parties have been met. In addition, it is essential to educate all parties on the expectations of the others to ensure a successful outcome.

The ultimate goal of the Honey Lake project was to transfer the entire property from CUWR to California. It was essential that both the Army and the project team understand what needed to be done to enable that transfer. In addition, the Army was obligated to keep local population abreast of developments.

Through post-transfer work, the team established and addressed the state's transfer requirements for property transfer and ensured those needs were met. The team also addressed encroachment issues and public concerns through state and county meetings and public workshops.

Nonprofit organization personnel from CUWR and TPL provided an essential impartial role in stakeholder coordination by ensuring that all voices were heard and all concerns addressed, whether from the state, the county, the federal agencies, or the public.

<b>Successful outcome</b>

By the fall of 2006, all concerns surrounding the Honey Lake Primary Parcel had been addressed, and all requirements by the state had been met. The project team completed all work laid out in the original conservation conveyance documentation, with some minor ongoing tasks clearly identified and delegated for completion.

On Nov. 1, 2006, the Honey Lake Primary Parcel transferred from the CUWR to California, completing the process begun in 2003. The property, deeded to the military by the state in 1933, officially returned to California for conservation in perpetuity.

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16