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MEEKER I If you’ve been following the Buffalo Horn land exchange saga, you may think it’s a done deal, but you’d be wrong.
Even though a decision was issued in January, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) allows for a 45-day protest period. Several protests were filed. The group behind one of them, Colorado Wild Public Lands (COWPL), met with interested citizens in Meeker last week to discuss their mission to keep public lands public.
Here’s the backstory. In 2011, the Buffalo Horn Ranch approached the Bureau of Land Management about exchanging private land acreage for public land parcels in the Strawberry Creek area. The next several years were spent formulating a plan — looking at maps, hiring consultants, doing appraisals and finalizing exact details — with all of the work being completed on Buffalo Horn’s dime. This is what is known as a “proponent-driven land exchange.”
In early 2017, a preliminary plan was released and received major opposition, with more than 50 people submitting negative comments during the public comment period. Due to the overwhelmingly negative response, many thought the plan would be scrapped altogether.
Those people received an unwelcome and unexpected surprise in 2018, when a preliminary environmental assessment of the land exchange appeared for another round of public input. More comments were submitted, and interested parties waited to see what would happen.
In January 2021, the BLM issued their decision. The deal would go through. COWPL submitted a protest March 8.
Anne Rickenbaugh, COWPL board member, spoke to a group of about 20 interested citizens and area landowners about that protest last Thursday. One primary concern of the group is a lack of transparency about the process. Adjacent landowners said they were unaware of the deal until it was nearly too late to comment, and were not given an opportunity to bid on parcels adjacent to their ranches. Rickenbaugh also pointed out one particular parcel on a large map during her presentation, stating that it was implied the parcel was removed after one round of public opposition, but suddenly showed up in later documents.
Local opposition also seems to have been disregarded in favor of backroom Washington deals. One of the owners of Buffalo Horn — Steve Feinberg — was deeply enmeshed in the 2016 election and Trump administration. “It seems,” Rickenbaugh stated, “the landowner had more sway than the public.”
Dr. Albert Krueger, owner of the centennial Villa Ranch adjacent to Buffalo Horn, stated, “this land exchange is in the interest of the owner, otherwise there’s no reason for them to initiate it.”
COWPL is concerned the exchange is unfair to not only landowners, but also to the public – for instance, they say Buffalo Horn will gain control of the only water in the area as well as the majority of the migration corridor for the elk herd that resides there. Some will lose outfitting and grazing permits in the exchange, and there are also mineral rights issues with a portion of a large parcel.
One Meeker resident stated he does not have a problem with BLM exchanging smaller islands of land for larger chunks, and COWPL agrees. They are focusing instead on the broader issues.
Buffalo Horn Ranch is the result of approximately 10 ranches being bought up by one person, crowding out opportunities for smaller outfitters and public land hunters. COWPL sees the land exchange as further encroachment on public lands and public access. “Land exchanges start to metastasize,” Rickenbaugh stated. She thinks with a new administration in Washington and continued local input, there’s a good chance COWPL’s protest will be approved. “We have confidence we can turn this thing around … it’s a really strong protest.”
You can read COWPL’s protest letter on their website at https://coloradowildpubliclands.org/pdf/Buffalo-Horn-Protest-Letter.pdf
By CAITLIN WALKER | firstname.lastname@example.org