Debate over Carbondale-area land exchange heats up | AspenTimes.com

Debate over Carbondale-area land exchange heats up

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

Janet Urquhart/The Aspen TimesA cliff band known as the Lion's Mane is part of the BLM land that would be privatized under a proposed land exchange.

ASPEN – The debate over the proposed exchange of federal land near the base of Mount Sopris for the privately owned Sutey Ranch, north of Carbondale, appears to be dividing valley residents who more commonly find themselves on the same side of the conservation fence.

Further fueling the controversy are the actions of two members of the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails board of trustees who are urging the public to check out the Bureau of Land Management property that is a key piece of the deal.

At a BLM open house Wednesday in Aspen, where BLM officials were on hand to discuss the proposal with interested members of the public, one proponent of the trade said the activities of open space board members Anne Rickenbaugh and Hawk Greenway constituted illegal use of a closed trail. Forest Service officials said otherwise Thursday.

Fifty-four people attended Wednesday’s event, according to the BLM.

Thirty-four written comments were submitted during the open house, and the agency has now received more than 140 comments on the trade, proposed by wealthy landowners Leslie and Abigail Wexner. They’re looking to fold more than 1,200 acres of BLM land into their Two Shoes Ranch on the flanks of Mount Sopris, outside of Carbondale.

Most of the comments submitted Wednesday were in favor of the exchange, according to Steve Bennett, BLM field manager.

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The comment deadline is Wednesday, June 20, and Pitkin County commissioners and the Open Space and Trails Board are scheduled to meet behind closed doors on Tuesday, June 19, to review the county’s draft comments on the land swap. The comments won’t be made public before their discussion unless the boards choose to hold the discussion in public, said Phylis Mattice, assistant county manager.

Pitkin County officials found themselves at odds with other local governments and conservation groups in the Roaring Fork Valley when the swap was first proposed three years ago. While the Open Space and Trails board opposed the deal, for example, Aspen Valley Land Trust supported it.

Jonathan Lowsky, a former wildlife officer for the county and now a consultant with Colorado Wildlife Science who is working for the Wexners, said he fears the mule deer and bighorn sheep habitat in the area will be compromised by the increased public use the parcel could see as a result of all the attention it’s getting.

“If this land stays a BLM parcel, especially now that it’s drawn such attention…it’s going to be ‘discovered’ and we’re going to end up with a situation like the Crown,” he said.

The nearby Crown, a popular recreation area for mountain bikers and others at the base of Mount Sopris, has seen the creation of “bandit” trails by the public, he noted.

Lowsky contends wildlife habitat will be better served if the BLM land is in private hands, protected by a permanent conservation easement, while the Sutey Ranch will provide both wildlife protection and expanded recreational opportunities. The expectation is that Sutey would be open to mountain biking and other uses in the summer, and closed in the winter to protect mule deer and elk habitat. A conservation easement would cover the Sutey property, as well.

As the BLM’s comment deadline approaches, the debate over the land swap has spawned a Facebook page – http://www.facebook.com/SuteyLandExchangeFacts – created by opponents of the land trade.

Meanwhile, the actions of Rickenbaugh and Greenway to direct interested citizens onto the BLM land could land them in hot water.

Acting as private citizens rather than open space board members, they have circulated directions and GPS coordinates to access the property via Forest Service land from the base of Nettle Creek Road where it intersects with Highway 133.

A well-used trail follows most of the route, but they attempted to mark it in some areas by erecting cairns and flagging trees. It was the cutting back of some vegetation, however, that could result in a citation, Rickenbaugh said she’s been told.

The matter remains under investigation, said Scott Snelson, Forest Service district ranger.

Bennett said he’s concerned that the public will begin creating new trails on the BLM land, but officials have seen no evidence of trail construction so far.

“It’s not something that’s unprecedented,” he said.

Whether the route Rickenbaugh and Greenway mapped is actually open to public use is also a source of controversy. The trail on the Forest Service land is not acknowledged in the agency’s Travel Management Plan, said Rich Doak, forest recreation staff officer. That doesn’t mean it’s closed, though, he said.

“Our policy in the White River is people are free to walk anywhere they want to,” Doak said.

The trail is open to foot and horse travel, Snelson confirmed.

The Forest Service is looking into whether the short stretch of Nettle Creek Road used on the route mapped by Rickenbaugh and Greenway is also open to non-motorized travel by the public, Snelson said.

The proposed land swap would put the 557-acre Sutey Ranch, adjacent to the Red Hill Special Recreation Area and located in Garfield County, under BLM ownership. The historic water rights from the ranch would also go to the BLM. The Sutey property was purchased by the Wexners with the trade in mind.

The BLM would also acquire 117 acres in Pitkin County along Prince Creek Road near the Crown, used by mountain bikers to access BLM roads and trails, plus receive a $1.1 million donation – $100,000 to develop a site-specific management plan for the newly acquired land and $1 million for its long-term management.

The BLM would give up 1,268 acres in Pitkin County adjacent to Two Shoes Ranch. It would also give up 195 acres on Horse Mountain, southwest of Eagle.

Go to http://www.blm.gov/co/crvfo for details about the proposal or to submit a comment.

janet@aspentimes.com