Federal land sale could put 250,500 acres at risk in Pitco
Up to 250,500 acres of unspoiled backcountry in Pitkin County could fall into private ownership if a bill authorizing the sale of public lands survives congressional scrutiny, according to analyses by an environmental group and The Aspen Times.A bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on Nov. 18 would make it easier for developers and other private interests to acquire unpatented mining claims and convert them into private property.That could have an instant effect on 2,300 acres in Pitkin County that are currently held as unpatented mining claims by companies or individuals, according to a review of federal land records by the Environmental Working Group.The Washington, D.C.-based organization said an additional 24 million acres in Colorado “would be newly vulnerable to development” under the bill because more federal land would be eligible for sale.”Land that is open to mining is open to a real estate sell off,” said Dusty Horwitt, an analyst with Environmental Working Group. “The bill takes the mining law and turns it into a real estate giveaway.”Horwitt and his colleagues determined the potential effect on Colorado by taking the total acreage the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management own, then subtracting land designated as wilderness or national parks.The group hasn’t analyzed potential impacts yet on individual Colorado counties, but it said historic mining centers like Pitkin County could see widespread impacts.Pitkin County comprises about 625,000 acres. About 83 percent, or 518,541 acres, is Forest Service and BLM land, according to figures from Pitkin County government.Of those federally owned lands, 268,000 acres are designated wilderness, according to an estimate by the White River National Forest’s planning office. Wilderness lands are generally protected from the land sale bill, Horwitt said.Nevertheless, that leaves up to 250,500 acres in Pitkin County potentially on the auction block, based on Environmental Working Group’s parameters. Heavily forested lands and lush meadows in places like Hunter Creek Valley and Richmond Ridge, where the county government has fought to prevent development, could be affected.To put the 250,500 acres in perspective: There are only about 56,250 acres privately held in Pitkin County today.Not all of the public lands eligible for sale would fall into private hands, according to Roger Flynn, a legal analyst for the Colorado-based Western Mining Action Project. But it’s a safe bet that the vast majority of the available lands will be pursued because of the potential payoffs, he said.New claims would have to be staked on land contiguous to old mining lands – but in a place like Pitkin County, that would be easy to achieve. Speculators placed claims on every nook and cranny in the silver rush from 1879 to 1893.The new bill would require an individual or company that stakes a new claim to perform $7,500 of maintenance work before it acquired title to the land, Flynn said. That could be as simple as getting a survey crew up to a secluded piece of ground and writing a report on its findings.The federal land sale provisions aren’t guaranteed, however. They were included as an amendment to the House budget bill but not as part of the Senate’s bill. A conference committee will meet next month to iron out differences.If the land sale provisions survive, Pitkin County has some protections. Special backcountry rules, called rural and remote zoning, limit development to 1,000-square-foot cabins on land one-half mile or more off established county roads.Thus, the federal land sale could spawn a proliferation of backcountry cabins and gravel roads but not monster homes.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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