Appeal of BLM-Wexner land swap near Carbondale in judge’s hands
A court case challenging the exchange of public lands on the lower slopes of Mount Sopris to a private landholder for the Sutey Ranch north of Carbondale is in a judge’s hands.
Colorado Wild Public Land Inc. made its final argument Aug. 20 to try to convince a federal judge to nullify the land swap by the Bureau of Land Management with Leslie and Abigail Wexner. The judge’s decision could come any day.
The BLM made an administrative ruling in June 2014 to convey 1,268 acres of public lands to the Wexners for the expansion of their Two Shoes Ranch.
In exchange, the Wexners gave the public the 557-acre Sutey Ranch and a 112-acre parcel along Prince Creek Road that has been incorporated into a popular mountain bike and hiking trail network.
Colorado Wild Public Lands was founded by a group of Roaring Fork Valley residents that includes three former members of the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails board of directors — Franz Froelicher, Hawk Greenway and Anne Rickenbaugh. Froelicher is the nonprofit group’s board president.
The goal of the lawsuit, Froelicher said, is “to make the public whole and keep public lands public.”
He is concerned that the exchange is a precedent that will become more prevalent, with cash-strapped land management agencies willing to cut deals with wealthy landowners who want to expand their holdings.
“Only one other nonprofit is watchdogging these kinds of land exchanges,” Froelicher said.
The BLM defended the exchange as a public benefit. The land conveyed to the Wexners was little used and was surrounded by private property, with the exception of a small sliver of national forest, according to the agency.
In return, the public received the Sutey Ranch, which is north of the popular Red Hill network of trails. The BLM is working on a management plan that will balance protection of wildlife habitat with recreational use of the property.
The property acquired by the public along Prince Creek Road provides vital access to public lands on the Crown.
Although there is an appeal of the land exchange in federal court, the BLM considers the swap a done deal.
“The decision is (in) full force and effect, and the exchange has been completed,” BLM spokesman David Boyd said via email.
After exhausting its administrative protests, Colorado Wild Public Lands filed its lawsuit challenging the exchange. It contends the BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act in various ways while assessing the swap sought by the Wexners. It also contends the deal violated the Federal Land Policy and Management Act by underestimating the value of the BLM property that was traded.
“BLM unlawfully undervalued the Sopris parcel’s value: the appraisal’s market value conclusion was not based on the property’s future intended use and arbitrarily ignored comparable sales,” the nonprofit’s lawsuit said.
The BLM has defended the process and the appraisals as proper and valid. The Wexners joined the lawsuit as interveners and have defended the process.
Leslie Wexner is the founder and chairman of Limited Inc., an apparel retailer based in Ohio. The billionaire has had a longtime presence in the Roaring Fork Valley.
He and his wife, Abigail, have purchased thousands of acres of ranchland outside of Carbondale, starting in 2002 with the purchase of 2,491 acres from the former Turnbull Ranch for $18 million.
Since then they have acquired at least 11 other properties in the area along Highway 133 and up Prince Creek Valley, within 7 miles of Carbondale. Sandwiched between their holdings near the base of Mount Sopris was the BLM property. The agency determined the land was eligible for trade because it was isolated from other public lands.
The land swap gave the Wexners control of about 9.5 square miles of property. The deal was widely hailed for getting two valuable pieces of private land into the public’s hands. The Pitkin County commissioners initially opposed the swap but ultimately voted to support it.
Colorado Wild Public Lands contends the BLM traded land that had public value.
“The land exchange injures CWPL and its members because it is poor public policy, violates federal law, and results in the loss of valuable public lands,” the conservation group said in its objection with the BLM. “Voiding the land exchange will remedy the injuries to CWPL and its members.”
In the court case, Colorado Wild Public Lands contended the federal government erred by not considering the “highest and best use” of the lands it was trading when calculating its market value.
The BLM countered that market value is different from value to the Wexners from the assembly of contiguous properties. The BLM placed the value of the property it traded at $4 million.
Froelicher said the conservation group contends the value was underestimated by at least $13 million and as much as $60 million — noting the price of other purchases the Wexners made in the area.
It is unclear what would happen if a judge rules with Colorado Wild Public Lands that the process was flawed. Parties involved in the matter said they didn’t know if that would end the possibility of the swap or if the Wexners would be required to sweeten the deal.
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Kevin Warner started his career with the U.S. Forest Service as a wilderness ranger in 2001. Now he’s taking over the key position as Aspen-Sopris District Ranger.