Watchdogs, locals express concerns over land exchange

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RBC | Public Lands Group Weighs In

Representatives of Colorado Wild Public Lands (CWPL), a Basalt-based organization that for more than 10 years has specialized in proponent-driven public land exchanges attended the BLM’s informational meeting May 23 on the proposed Buffalo Horn Land Exchange in Meeker. They had also been present for the public information meeting on BLM’s initial Notice of Exchange Proposal in December 2016 which initiated public scoping comments.

Concerns expressed in comment by CWPL in early 2017, which they feel are still relevant, include:

That the outdoor recreation value of public lands, vital to the multi-billion dollar outdoor recreation industry in Colorado, not be underappreciated;

– That the trend of writing-off lesser known and less traveled public places in favor of moving proponent-driven land exchanges forward past reasonable objections not be continued in this instance;

– That the value of parcels of public lands be described individually to the public and analyzed on a “value for value” basis for each element in the exchange proposal; and that BLM help the public understand the values and parameters for each habitat type;

– That consistent with the Government Accounting Office report 09-611, BLM remain neutral in its assessments, valuations, presentations and decisions;

– That a sufficient number of alternatives be provided for public scrutiny (the 2016 proposal set forth only one exchange alternative while the May 2018 Preliminary Environmental Assessment provides only one additional “compromise” alternative);

– That there be a full disclosure of all participating relationships, something CWPL states is often missing in cases between a lone landowner (proponent) and BLM, as a matter of transparency;

– That the public clearly be able to see the value placed on each and every recreational use as well as the intrinsic value of the  uses so that the public interest can be discerned for each parcel slated for exchange;

– That outreach and adequate notification to a broader public be pursued, and that the public comment period be extended over three seasons to allow personal site visits by the public;

– That the high priority for “public value” given to Buffalo Horn’s property between the Windy Gulch and Black Mountain Wilderness Study Areas (private Parcel B) be better verified using defined calculations; and

– That the future use of exchanged federal properties be clarified to the public and written into any final exchange agreements, again in compliance with the aforementioned GAO report.

– CWPL submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to BLM in May which asked for BLM to reveal the actual appraisals of considered land parcels undertaken or commissioned by their Appraisal and Valuation Service Office when they are completed and information regarding the actual owner(s) of the Buffalo Horn Properties, LLC.

– With regard to the appraisal work, CWPL state that they understand that it is customary for BLM to only release appraisals at the time of their decision (projected to be January 2019), but argue that they believe the valuation of lands considered in land exchanges is extremely important in the determination of public interest and should be available for public scrutiny before decisions are made.

Local Hunters, Land Managers and Outfitters Weigh In

BLM parcels labeled C-1 and C-2 in the Price Creek area constitute the bulk of federal lands to be exchanged to BHR. Significant concern about these public lands becoming BHR property were raised in the scoping comments.

With regard to the 1,760 acre C-1 BLM Parcel proposed to go to BHR, in the Ben Morgan and Maudlin Gulch areas of Moffat County, Dale Haskins, resident manager of the Efficiency Lodge, Inc., wrote that, “It is absurd that BLM has even allowed this [exchange] effort to begin. It is a prime example of a conglomerate owner trying to acquire prime public lands for their sole benefit. The C-1 unit specifically is a tremendous wildlife habitat that is used and enjoyed by the public. BHR owns and controls vast holdings [in both counties]. Enough is enough. Through Ranching for Wildlife they [already] profit from commercial hunting as allowed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Allowing BHR to own the C-1 Parcel would be the death of the public hunter in that area.”

Meeker self-described hunter, outdoor recreation and public lands enthusiast, Greg Hanberg, argued in 2017 to keep the C-1 Parcel in public ownership as he states it is prime habitat which holds elk throughout the year due to having forage, water and cover. Hanberg expressed frustration that BHR is taking advantage of the public by trying to obtain public lands that will increase their property values and leave the public holding the bag. “These land exchanges [are] a disservice to the public and I hope they will not go through,” he wrote.

Rick Tingle, owner/operator of the Louisiana Purchase Ranch, wrote that per acre values of the “high desert sage” land Parcel B which BHR is proposing to trade to BLM are in the range of $280 to $450, while land adjoining the C-1 and C-2 parcels on Price Creek have appraised at $1,525 to $1,988 per acre.

Furthermore, Tingle argued that C-2 land is already used and accessible by the public, and is prime deer, elk, bear, and grouse habitat, not comparable to the Parcel B values. He also states that any land BLM is willing to trade ought to be offered for sale or trade to any adjacent landowners, not solely BHR.

Albert and Mary K. Krueger, owner/operators of the Villa Ranch, and associated outfitting, like almost all of the 50 some comment-makers back in 2017, oppose the exchange. They made the general statement that the exchange, which has not been changed to a substantial degree since January 2017, “would have a detrimental effect on those who engage in hunting big game, deer and elk,” on the involved BLM lands. “The proposed land swap is not a fair trade because the land proposed to be acquired by Buffalo Horn is far more valuable than the land offered to the public.”

With regard to Parcel B, which the public would acquire in the trade and lies between two Wilderness Study Areas, the Kruegers state that those lands are already accessible by the public, either by motorized vehicles to their west and north sides, or on foot or horseback, making the stated high priority for acquisition by BLM doubtful. Plus, the Kruegers claim that if federal ownership of Parcel B does occur, it threatens to allow public access to the degree that current wilderness and wildlife qualities would be jeopardized. The WSAs are just to the west of the Villa Ranch, 10 miles west of Meeker.

The Kruegers also testify that the area is well-liked currently by hunters who value remoteness, having to exert some effort to access an area, and desire the solitude that creates a special hunting experience.

One of the BLM pieces proposed to go to BHR, Parcel F-8, in the Cave and Cabin Gulch area off of Strawberry Creek, is utilized by grazing permittees associated with the Rawlinson/Vannoy Ranch and, the Kruegers say, would be severely impacted by becoming BHR private land. Under even the revised exchange proposal, required changes to fence and grazing patterns which have stood for over 100 years would be extremely costly, diminishing the value of the Vannoy Ranch.

Roy Vannoy has written to BLM that changing the current fencing and fence lines would take very expensive bulldozer time and effort also requiring road-building on steep terrain, all of which would seriously exacerbate erosion problems. Vannoy, who states that he’s worked on his place for over 40 years, asks why this burden should fall on him just because BHR wants that BLM piece. For his part, Area Field Office Manager Kent Walter told the May 23 crowd that BLM did not intend to create this kind of problem, or conflicts between landowners, permittees and the like. He suggested folks work it all out through better communications with their neighbors.

Local hunter and wildlife aficionado Joe Gutierrez noted to BLM that if the BHR’s Parcel B is traded to the public, BHR will still have access, from private land they will continue to own, for livestock grazing and their hunting operations on the Wilderness Study Areas, so they will lose nothing and will still control the ridge tops, main water sources and key access points.

The 30 day public comment period on the exchange proposal ended yesterday. BLM has stated that the public comments received will now not be available to the public until they issue their decision in January 2019.