Land exchange not in public’s best interest |

Land exchange not in public’s best interest

Dear Editor:

I was appointed by you to help the Open Space and Trails board direct taxpayer funds toward the greatest public and wildlife benefit possible. In the five years on the board, two of which I spent as chairman, we consummated many millions of dollars of deals. We extinguished development rights to maintain the beautiful view corridors, to connect trails and most importantly, to protect critical wildlife habitat.

In all those deals, we required ourselves to do the homework to go the extra mile in making the best decisions possible for the investment of taxpayer dollars. Unlike most of our negotiations, this land exchange took an enormous amount of county resources, time and taxpayer dollars. It was contentious from the first effort to make real all the moving parts and to quantify the public/wildlife benefit.

We never asked for anything beyond a fair shake for the public, and we were met with constant barrage of sudden agreement changes. And as each one was scrutinized, we found better public alternatives for each. We had several, I believe, better public and wildlife alternatives that were key to the nearly unanimous opposition to this exchange from you – the commissioners – to the Open Space and Trails board and any who were privy to adversarial nature of this negotiation.

It failed the sniff test at almost every level, raised red flags everywhere and often proved worse upon investigation. The pattern of land capture represented by this process, with the historic checkerboard public/private land offerings of the Manifest Destiny era, has led to the pervasive practice of reducing or eliminating public accesses to capture adjacent public lands at little cost to private land owners.

Whereas the Government Office of Accountability actually recommended shutting down the land exchange program, especially in contentious (situations) or where exchanges have large value discrepancies in parcels, the Arizona Legislature has recognized the process for what it is and introduced a bill to give back public access to all public lands.

That is a top-down solution, and opposition to this exchange here would enforce that notion from the bottom up.

The Gunnison exchange also is finding a contentious public not interested in giving up its access or lands, so the process is finding resistance there as well.

The Band-Aid solution allows a maximum of 25 percent in cash (value) to be traded to offset public loss, hardly an appropriate Band-Aid for values viewed to be as much as $10 million out of balance. A vote for this proposal is a vote for trading recreation potential for public lands.

It’s widely recognized that sheep and cattle overlap nearly 100 percent in forage needs, and there is clear conflict in that part of the agreement that favors cattle over the dwindling bighorn sheep – is there a large buffer in the easement language for that? The bighorn sheep have a disease dispersed from old-world domestic sheep. Does having a bighorn herd on a ranch raise any red flags? The grazing-lease report of “poor” condition of the stream and riparian certainly raises a red flag for habitat condition going forward.

Recreation: The Hains property – while a nice part of economic puzzle on its surface – should hold little benefit, as it was pointed out that a small adjustment in trails would eliminate any trespass issues there.

Wildlife: The Sutey property could potentially be a 55,000-user-a-day recreation area for Carbondale, as it was celebrated early in this process. But that has to be in direct conflict with wildlife needs.

So it would require a long annual closure to accommodate the wildlife there. Should 1,200 acres of public lands be traded for high-use rec areas? Will dogs be allowed? Many questions were not answered during iterations of easement issues and remain unanswered.

Sustainability: Several valley residents have harvested animals off the public lands to feed their families. I am guessing no hunting (at the Sutey property) would replace that public connection and availability to sustenance, essentially taking food out of the mouths of those who might need it most.

Access: The access is no less than 4 million acres of wilderness; the one-hour trail has been long blazed by horsemen and public with trails far easier than the scramble to Thomas Lakes or American Lake or Lyle Lake or any winter hut, places visited by thousands each year. Should we establish real estate prices based on distance away from a car? What is a wilderness worth?

Precedent: Last, there is a real problem in voting for a process that takes away public lands. This particular case has shown itself to be a successful model for capture of public lands, despite contentions and valuation discrepancies.

A vote for this exchange also validates the appraisal process, which has grossly undervalued the public lands. I think this is a terrible vote and can only recommend that there be a continued scrutiny of these conditions and hopefully a careful look in the policy that this establishes forward for further public-land losses via these land exchanges.

Franz Froelicher

Unincorporated Pitkin County

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