Comments on Buffalo Horn land exchange due June 6

RBC | BLM held a public meeting May 23 regarding the proposed land exchange between the Buffalo Horn Ranch (BHR) and federal public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management involving thousands of acres in Rio Blanco County and some in Moffat County. BLM issued a preliminary environmental assessment on May 8, selecting a revised version of the original proposal as their preferred alternative, with a comment deadline of June 6.

More than 40 people attended the May 23 meeting, only about six of whom were BLM employees. Many were owners, managers and employees of Strawberry Creek ranch properties—the epicenter of the proposed land exchanges, as well as local hunters and outdoor enthusiasts.

In 2011, BLM proposed a Buffalo Horn Land Exchange involving 6,645 acres of private land in six parcels for 7,629 acres of federal land in 18 parcels, the latter generally in the upper Strawberry Creek area. By the end of 2016, the proposal had morphed into exchanging three private parcels comprising 4,036 acres for 16 parcels of BLM comprising 3,806 acres.

After receiving overwhelmingly negative public comments in early 2017, nearly 52 opposed to 2 in favor, and a challenge from an oil and gas company which had a master surface use agreement already in place on a large private parcel, BLM began reconfiguring their proposal with BHR.

Some concern exists that these negotiations which have been occurring over the last year or more have been going on without much public awareness. Local ranchers and public land users have told the Herald Times that due to all the opposition, they had been under the impression the whole idea was dead.

A little more than three weeks ago, however, BLM issued its Preliminary Environmental Assessment (EA) of the Buffalo Horn Land Exchange, proposing as their preferred Alternative B the exchange of 14 parcels, comprising 2,815 acres, of federal ground in the Upper Strawberry Creek and Price Creek area for one parcel of 1,835 acres of BHR land sandwiched between the Windy Gulch and Black Mountain BLM Wilderness Study Areas, just north of Highway 64, about 10 miles west of Meeker.

The EA stresses that the purpose of a land exchange proposal like this one “is to improve public access, consolidate land ownership and improve public land management while minimizing public trespass on adjacent private lands.” BLM concluded, in the EA, that Alternative B best meets the purpose and need for a land exchange.

Other alternatives considered by BLM were some proposed public access agreements in the Upper Strawberry Creek area involving Cave and Goff Camp Gulch BLM areas off County Road 7 (Strawberry Creek Road), access off County Road 7 in the Price Creek area, and road access across BHR to BLM land west of the Strawberry Creek drainage. BHR declined these possibilities as well as the addition of some private parcels in the Ted Gulch area that would have increased public benefit.

Heather Sauls, Planning and Environmental Coordinator for the White River Field Office of BLM, led the May 23 presentation with a Powerpoint about the land exchange process and history of BHR proposals.

Sauls explained there may be a need to adjust and re-configure the parcels under consideration in order to balance actual appraised values. In making the proposal, BLM had preliminary value estimates from 2015 but the actual appraisal phase doesn’t happen until after the comment period. The EA explains that appraisals should be done as close to closing as possible to reflect current land values.

Among the interesting facts revealed by Sauls were that in 2016, Payment in Lieu of Taxes accrued to Moffat and Rio Blanco Counties, paid by the federal government, amounted to $0.36 to $0.45 per acre. Private property taxes for the private parcels under consideration paid $0.12 to $0.19 per acre.

Tentative conclusions, according to Sauls, are that the acquisition by the public of the parcel between the Windy Gulch and Black Mountain Wilderness Study Areas would improve year-round public access to those areas; would create additional public recreation opportunities there; would facilitate disposal of small, isolated BLM parcels with limited or no public access; and would cut recreational opportunities in the Pine Tree Gulch and Rattlesnake Hill State Trust Land sections in Moffat County by only 10 percent.

Questions abound, however, about the loss of public pieces in the Upper Strawberry and Price Creek areas both with regard to public opportunities and use of those areas now and afterward by private hunting operations and grazing permittees.

Sauls and Field Office Manager Kent Walter strongly emphasized the importance of getting comments to them by June 6 as previous comments were all directed toward the now abandoned Alternative A. Furthermore, Sauls’ presentation urged substantive comments in order to be effective. Substantive comments question, on some reasonable basis, the accuracy of EA information or conclusions and assumptions used, and present new information as well as reasonable alternatives. Both said public comment is critical in determining whether the exchange is a benefit to the public, or not.

Strawberry Creek rancher Lyle McKee said after the meeting that he has difficulty understanding why, on some of the scattered BLM pieces that are under consideration in their proposal, couldn’t be offered for sale to other adjacent landowners. He said, “It seems patently unfair that those parcels would be made available only to one operation. It seems like the little guy is being pushed aside in favor of a big outfit.”

McKee also wonders why it’s fair that BLM and BHR have been working on the revised proposal for well over a year, without public scrutiny, and now the public, including other public land operators, were given only 30 days, now down to less than a week, to respond. Plus, McKee figures the public should have another opportunity to comment when actual appraised values are released.

Sauls urged interested individuals to call or email her with any questions. She can be contacted at 970-878-3855 or hsauls@blm.gov. At the meeting’s end, BHR manager Grant Edinger also urged anyone call him with questions at 970-878-4633. The BLM EA with maps and much additional information can be viewed at https://go.usa.gov/xnW2y.