If You’ve Got The Money, Honey, You Can Have our Land


This post by WildSnow.com blogger  

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 money 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.

Looking from the north at Mount Sopris and proposed lands for exchange.

Looking from the north at Mount Sopris and proposed lands for exchange. Green border marks public land, red is private. Red arrow indicates point where road right-of-way is within a few feet of public land, thus being a potential access point and of immense importance. Photo from Pitkin County Open Space

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.

Another article.

And another one.

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:

Steve Bennett
Field Manager
2300 River Frontage Road
Silt, CO 81652

emails
sbennett@co.blm.gov
kmendonc@blm.gov

(This post originally published August 9, 2010, republished June 8 2012 with updates due to pending decision and comments period.)

Comments

12 Responses to “If You’ve Got The Money, Honey, You Can Have our Land”

  1. Chuck August 9th, 2010 5:52 pm

    Where is the “like” button?

  2. Lou August 9th, 2010 6:14 pm

    You mean over on Facebook?

  3. anne rickenbaugh August 9th, 2010 6:39 pm

    Thanks, Lou, for speaking out about this. I’m on the Pitkin County Open Space board and we’ve felt like voices crying in the wilderness. Are you aware that there is another, bigger exchange proposed on Kebler Pass, involving mineral rights, wild and scenic rivers and closing Gunnison County road access?. This happens a lot, and its even worse than you think; by the time these things are done and the accompanying tax deductions are taken, we’re talking millions of dollars. See the Aspen Times, letters to the editor for today, monday, aug. 9. Thanks again!

  4. Lou August 9th, 2010 8:25 pm

    Anne, indeed, the tax deductions these guys get are the equivalent of the public giving them millions. Another effect I’ve noticed is that some of the tax credits that occur are added to the value of the land by the county assessor, and result in an inflated “sale price” going on the tax records. This in turn makes nearby land appear more valuable than it really is and ends up making it difficult to do real estate transactions without ever more dickering about the real value of a given property, money spend on appraisers, etc.

    The above is an unintended consequence that is quite serious, in my opinion.

    I would have like to laundry list all the downsides of the Two Shoes exchange, but to me the most important is simply the virtual giving away of such a valuable chunk of land. I’ve been up there numerous times, and to think it may soon be private and closed just makes my skin crawl. Disgusting.

  5. Mark W August 10th, 2010 7:11 am

    Ted Turner’s Flying D Ranch is bisected by one the most popular accesses to the Spanish Peaks. If that access were eliminated, it would negatively affect so many hikers and skiers. Similar events around Mount Sopris would certainly be tough for recreators.

  6. David Boye August 10th, 2010 8:58 am

    Unrelated to this topic, but following up on Spring of 2010, Whitefish Mountain Resort deserves some GOOD PR for changing their policy on uphill traffic:

    http://www.dailyinterlake.com/news/local_montana/article_0de3540c-a424-11df-ae26-001cc4c03286.html

  7. Lou August 10th, 2010 1:04 pm

    It gets worse. This just in from someone closely involved:

    “The exchange would have essentially used public money (via tax benefits to the private land owner) to purchase the entire public land parcel and then put additional millions back into the private side of the deal through tax cuts using completely different rules. Scrutiny of the tax credits and appraisal figure is legislated out of the reporting equation and sunshine laws so the public will never see how the game is played, there is no requirement to publicly declare the actual tax benefit when it happens, maybe years later.

    The current legislation and the tax codes allow this industry to exist only for those that can afford millions in ante fees and think nothing is wrong with that. Can’t see it, it’s not reported… out of sight out of mind; Whamo- good bye public lands, or is it “ GOOD BUY! – PUBLIC LANDS …* Free to qualified buyers! Or better yet… “Get paid millions to own public lands !”. The only qualification I see is that you have to have a use for a 10 to 30 million dollar tax break in some tax-year or phased set of tax-years after the deal is sent through congress.

    This is most definitely not a “great public benefit” (end quote)

  8. Colin in CA August 10th, 2010 11:00 pm

    “…that has been historically crossed by hunters and hikers for at least a century.”

    Lou, is there a trail from the road through that strip of private land? If there is, the county might not need to condemn it (in the absence of a swap)… private citizens may be able to sue for a prescriptive easement. I don’t know Colorado real property law, but basic common law principles might allow this.

  9. Lou August 11th, 2010 7:17 am

    Colin, no really defined trail, the heaviest use probably during hunting season. Nonetheless, if we can ever form a citizens group who’s purpose is access advocacy, that’s the sort of thing they could work on. I wish I had time. Perhaps some day…

    If this particular land exchange happens it is a huge loss to the backcountry recreation community. I’m embarrassed to say that our own town trustees endorsed it with only one dissenting vote (thanks John Hoffman). In a town that is just to the right politically of Boulder, Colorado, I am bowled over that our trustees would be so ignorant and easily manipulated by the big money they love to hate. But then, it’s small town politics and the Ranch owners came up with a fairly sweet piece of property to use as bait.

  10. daniel August 11th, 2010 12:51 pm

    thats all bueatiful juniper forest if i remmember right, cool land.

  11. gtrantow August 13th, 2010 8:13 pm

    The plot thickens when you consider wealthy land owners may be teaming up with Wilderness Workshop/Hidden Gems. Hidden Gems benefits by receiving donations from land owners who could benefit if their private lands are bordered by Wilderness as compared to NFS or BLM lands.
    The trail from Dinkle Lake road along Wexner’s ranch is unofficially called Borderline trail by some. The outfitters and locals use the trail to get to Thomas Creek, Prince Creek and beyond to the NW side of Sopris. Both groups, Hidden Gems and the Wexners would like to close this trail to mountain bikers, hunters and others.

  12. Gandalf the White June 8th, 2012 7:49 am

    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 and- e.g. existing trails, habitat science, grazing history, hunting quality, etc. [Descriptive information provided by the BLM to date is sparse at best, and 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; 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:

    Steve Bennett
    Field Manager
    2300 River Frontage Road
    Silt, CO 81652
    Steve_Bennett@co.blm.gov
    karl_mendonca@blm.gov

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