Gone for good
Connie Harvey has written an interesting and informative piece on the Wexner/Sutey land swap (“Land exchange is better than a dead donkey,” March 19, 2010, Aspen Daily News).
And as with most complicated arrangements such as the Wexner proposal, the exchange has lots of gray and not much black and white. And there are some positive elements to the Wexners’ proposal. But let’s take a look at some aspects of the proposal.
There are some misconceptions about the BLM piece in the Wexner-Sutey exchange.
Putting the potentially privatized Pitkin County portion of the exchange into a conservation easement gains little. The land in question in Pitkin County is currently/already in the public’s ownership as BLM land. Privatizing this piece of Pitkin County, even with a conservation easement, removes it from the inventory of public land and forever removes it from possible enjoyment of the public. There is a net loss to the public in converting public land into private land even with a conservation easement. Since some of the regulations on land use in Pitkin County are based on acreage, the increase in Wexner’s private ownership of land in Pitkin County gives him advantages that are, for the moment, not easy to identify, but possible, even with a conservation easement on the land.
The argument that the parcel in question in Pitkin County, now owned by the BLM, would be better conserved in a private easement is curious. If that were true, why would the BLM, who will receive the Sutey Ranch, suddenly be considered a good steward of the Sutey parcel in Garfield County?
Let’s look at the land exchange from the point of view of Pitkin County and the Pitkin County taxpayers.
Pitkin County has an Open Space and Trails program. This program is financed by the taxpayers of Pitkin County. Over the life of the program (established in 1990) Open Space and Trails has invested a total of over $99,199,000 to protect 17,262 acres through fee acquisition or conservation easements. OST has invested approximately $3,617,895 of its program dollars in property interests outside Pitkin County. In addition to the outlay of over $100 million by Pitkin County to protect open space, many residents of Pitkin County have contributed significantly in terms of opportunities foregone in placing their land into conservation easements to the tune of additional hundreds of millions of dollars (there are many examples). The endowment of $1 million that the Wexners have offered to maintain the Sutey Ranch does not wind up in the treasury of Pitkin County.
The question then becomes, why should Pitkin County now reverse course and give up its public lands after the Pitkin County taxpayers have spent such a huge amount of money to protect its open space and to guarantee for generations the future of pubic lands and the uses that can be enjoyed by many? If Pitkin County endorses the land exchange, are they ignoring their fiduciary responsibilities to their taxpayers?
Then there is the question of precedent. Will Mr. Wexner now find an opportunity to annex BLM lands next to his property on Red Mountain in exchange for land he may someday purchase in Delta County or in the San Luis Valley or other locations somewhere else in the U.S.? Is this exchange creating a precedent that will open the doors for multiple exchanges of public land in Pitkin County for lands farther and farther away from Pitkin County? Who wouldn’t want to exchange land outside of Pitkin County for the treasure of gaining ownership within Pitkin County?
And further to the questions that this exchange raises, if Pitkin County endorses the exchange and thus the exchange gets approval through an act of Congress, what are the guarantees that any conditions that are put on the exchange by Pitkin County and agreed to at the time by the Wexners will actually be included in the congressional act that establishes the exchange? The act of Congress that will legalize the exchange will supersede any agreement between the Wexners and Pitkin County. A good lobbyist and money can negate in Washington all the good intentions and compromises and conditions set by Pitkin County. Once Pitkin County gives its support, it loses control over what is finally contained in the congressional act.
In regard to the support for the exchange, almost all the supporters benefit from the exchange but make no contributions. It is easy to understand that Carbondale and Garfield County would endorse the exchange. They are expecting Pitkin County to pay, through the privatization of public lands in Pitkin County, for access to land that serves their county. It seems that it would be a better solution if Garfield County, with its reserves of money from the gas industry and lying in their general fund, allocate some dollars to work with the Wexners to secure the Sutey Ranch as public lands in their own county. If Garfield, Eagle and Pitkin counties got together to finance the purchase of the Sutey Ranch, or to purchase a conservation easement on the Sutey Ranch, it would add to the inventory of public lands.
Public land, once privatized, is lost forever. The Pitkin County taxpayers understand this.
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