Exchanging private for Federal public land is nothing new in the United States. Doing so is an important tool we have for cleaning up inholdings that break apart legally mandated Wilderness and block public access. But the process has a big downside.
Basically, the land exchange process allows the use of private land as a form of currency you can use to buy public land — only without the bidding process that would normally be engaged for a real estate sale. On top of that, the process bends to political pressure and is dependent on legally mandated value appraisals that simply do not consider the worth of things such as the potential for a public access trail. In other words, none of the valuation process introduces any more than minimal metrics for recreation value. Instead, in some cases recreation value is used as a subjective bargaining chip or actually seen as a detriment.
The expensive but frequently successful private/public land exchange process all too often looks something like this: 1. Buy a chunk of land that has some recreation potential or critical wildlife habitat. 2. Threaten to develop said land or manage it in a way that is unpleasant, such as closing off historical public access. 3. Offer to trade said private land for public land that would help expand a ranch or enlarge a development. 4. Spread lots of money around. 5. Enjoy your new land. (If you want the details of how it is done, check out the folks who are best at it.)
I know of several such pending land deals in Colorado. One near here is proposed by the owners of Two Shoes Ranch on our signature peak, Mount Sopris. Presently, Two Shoes Ranch is split by a chunk of BLM land. The owners seek to meld their land holdings into one contiguous empire, so they came up with another ranch as bait (land near Carbondale) and crafted an exchange plan. As mentioned above, what the smart people with money did was buy a chunk of land with recreation value, and they’re now using that recreation value as a bargaining chip in trade for ownership of public land. Only the land they want to privatize also has recreation value — in mine and many other folk’s opinion the land to be taken from public ownership has much MORE recreation value than the ranch they’re using as a carrot.
Public access to the flanks of Mount Sopris, in my view, makes the BLM land between Two Shoes immensely valuable — of vastly greater worth than the number any conventional appraisal would place on the property. What is more, Pitkin County has spent vast sums of money acquiring open space lands over past decades. If this land exchange goes through and privatizes the public land on Mount Sopris, the land eliminated from public use would equal NEARLY HALF the lands that Pitkin County has so diligently (and expensively) acquired as public open space! That alone makes this land exchange patently ridiculous.
I’ve been on the BLM land in question. It is beautiful, and indeed makes fine alternative for recreation on majestic Mount Sopris (which is arguably our area’s prime hiking attraction yet has only one trailhead.) What’s more, the parcel in question is a wonderful hiking destination in its own right (plenty of excellent trails already exist) and with better trailhead access could be a good backcountry skiing destination as well as easily supporting several mountain bike trails.
We have an abundance of public land here in Colorado. But if you’ve been around any length of time it’s obvious that our commons is shrinking due to access issues such as blockage by private land. With that in mind, I feel it’s imperative that our decision makers consider access to public land (or the potential thereof) as one of the primary values when evaluating a land exchange. If an exchange eliminates potential public access (and creates very little elsewhere), it is a bad deal at any price and should be nixed. By that criteria alone this deal is bogus; it should never have reached the point it’s at presently. If the exchange deal does go through, we have been robbed.
The people who put these deals together can be very seductive. They buy truly nice properties for bait, and perhaps threaten development. They promise conservation easements, play the wildlife card, and promise huge cash donations to non-profits and even groups of private individuals such as homeowners associations. None of that matters. A public land parcel like that on Mount Sopris has nearly incalculable value. Let’s keep it public.
Good essay by the folks at Pitkin County Open Space.
Western Lands Project, promotes reform in the land exchange system.
Please, we here at WildSnow.com beg you to write letters opposing this destruction of public land access. Following is letter writing information copied from our comments:
Preliminary List of Points; Points to raise with BLM in Re Sutey Ranch Land Exchange:
1. Extend the comment period to allow the public to be familiarized with the land to be traded, including a complete inventory of current conditions, e.g. existing trails, habitat science, grazing history, hunting quality, etc. Descriptive information provided by the BLM to date is sparse at best and even has wrong information such as statements about lack of public access, and is not adequate to reasonably inform public.
2. Defer further action until the adoption of the Resource Management Plan. (The BLM has said no actions will be taken on other administrative decisions, such as any new trail connections on Light Hill. Until the RMP is done, why grant a special exception for such a large land transfer?) Completion of the RMP would allow the BLM a better gauge of the future needs for grazing, hunting, and recreational resources by the public overall, and the impact of the exchange on those values.
3. Complete formal consultations with the White River National Forest regarding the possible USFS administration of some or all of the Pitkin County BLM parcels. [BLM Assistant Field Manager stated last week that he “didn’t know” whether any consultation with the USFS has occurred or whether they will comment. The BLM and USFS share over one mile of common boundary at the foot of Mount Sopris, one of the most wild and scenic locations in Pitkin County.
4. Fully consider environmental impact that is likely to result from the BLM’s loss of ability to regulate grazing on two square miles which includes lands known to be critical habitat for big horn sheep. [The BLM’s grazing experts recently agreed to impose grazing restrictions in this area. These recent BLM actions will be rendered moot under the proposed exchange.
5. As required by BLM regulations, fully consider the reservation of public rights in the BLM parcels including hunting and other recreation. Wexner has a side deal with the Prince Creek Homeowners allowing continuing access to the BLM exchange lands. Why should one group have special rights?
6. Ensure that appraisals fully consider the “assemblage value” of the BLM lands to Two Shoes ranch, which to date has spent some $84,470,000 to acquire 4790 acres of surrounding private lands. The average price per acre works out to be $17,634. If you multiply the 1280 acres of BLM land by that number, the resulting “full price” based on what was paid to neighbors would be about $22.6 million; much more than the value of the private land the Wexners are offering the BLM in the exchange.
They are holding an open house in Aspen on June 13 4-6 pm at Aspen City Hall.
Public Comments are due by June 20, to the following address:
2300 River Frontage Road
Silt, CO 81652
sbennett at co.blm.gov
kmendonc at blm.gov
(This post originally published August 9, 2010, republished June 8 2012 with updates due to pending decision and comments period.)
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.