Pitkin County convenes specialists on land swaps

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Janine Blaeloch

ASPEN – Several specialists in the world of federal land exchanges will weigh in next week on a proposed policy to govern such swaps in Pitkin County.

The Pitkin County Open Space and Trails board of trustees will host an Oct. 5 panel discussion on The Aspen Institute campus, billed as a joint meeting with county commissioners.

The agenda will begin with an address by Janine Blaeloch, founder and director of Western Lands Project, a watchdog group that monitors land exchanges between the federal government and private parties.

After her remarks, a panel discussion will engage Blaeloch; Mark Weston, Denver-based appraiser with Hunsperger and Weston; Ed Marston, former editor of High Country News, and Adam Poe, president of Western Lands Group.

Also invited, but unconfirmed as participants, are representatives of the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service. Federal land exchanges in general, and a proposed county policy regarding land trades, will be the focus.

At least two members of the panel have already spoken up regarding an Open Space and Trails draft policy intended to guide the county in assessing proposed federal land exchanges. The latest version of the policy, tweaked again when the Open Space and Trails Board met in mid-September, defines the conditions under which the board, as well as county commissioners, would consider a proposed swap involving public lands in Pitkin County.

The policy has not been adopted, but Tim McFlynn, chairman of the open space board, said he’s interested in the input of the panelists. “Should there be a policy? Are we headed in the right direction?” he mused.

According to the draft policy, the exchange must be consistent with the goals of the Open Space and Trails program and not result in a net loss of public land in the county or the Roaring Fork River watershed. The proposed policy also calls for an appraisal of the full economic benefit to the proponent of a land exchange and for a net financial gain to the public.

The policy, according to the draft language, is intended to guide the county when someone proposes an exchange that privatizes public lands, but it is not intended to override existing federal laws and regulation.

The desire for a policy came on the heels of a lengthy negotiation between the county and billionaire landowners Leslie and Abigail Wexner over a proposed land swap before the Wexners in May withdrew their request for county support of the deal.

McFlynn stressed the policy should be a broad approach to evaluating proposed land exchanges rather than a reaction to the Wexner proposal, but early on, panelist Poe called a prior version of the policy “ill-advised.” Poe’s Western Lands Group is a private firm hired to help broker the Wexners’ proposed trade.

Exchanges should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, Poe said in a letter to the open space board, rather than a blanket policy that arbitrarily sets goals and standards.

Weston, who works on conservation easement appraisals, previously called the county’s attempt to ascertain the true value of an exchange to the proponent “admirable” and said a private landowner can realize far more value than what the federally required appraisal in a land swap would conclude.

Marston has not been active in the debate in Pitkin County, but has raised red flags about a proposed land exchange in the works in Gunnison County. Paonia-based High Country News, of which he was formerly editor, focuses on public policy, environmental issues and culture in the West.

Next week’s meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. in the Lauder Room of the institute’s Koch Building.