Pitkin County weighs in on Sutey land trade | AspenTimes.com

Pitkin County weighs in on Sutey land trade

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

ASPEN – Pitkin County officials signed off Tuesday on their comments regarding the proposed Sutey Ranch land exchange, but the Bureau of Land Management rejected one county request before the county’s letter could even be forwarded to the agency.

Wednesday is the deadline to submit comments to the BLM on the land swap, involving BLM land mostly located on the flank of Mount Sopris near Carbondale, and the Sutey Ranch, north of the Red Hill Recreation Area, also near Carbondale.

County commissioners and the county’s Open Space and Trails board of trustees met jointly behind closed doors Tuesday in Aspen to review a draft letter containing the county’s comments on the land exchange. They conducted virtually no discussion of the matter in public before each board directed its chair to sign the letter.

The letter makes 20 requests of the BLM regarding the exchange but does not take a position on the land swap one way or another, Commissioner Rob Ittner stressed.

“This is not a letter saying we are for it; this is not a letter saying we’re against it,” he said.

The first request in the letter, though – that the BLM extend the public comment period – already has been denied. The county also made the request previously, and the BLM announced Tuesday that it would not do so.

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“We’re sticking with the 45 days,” said BLM spokesman David Boyd.

Though the 45-day comment period ends Wednesday, the public will have a second opportunity to submit comments when a detailed environmental assessment is released, which is expected in the fall, he said. A final decision on the proposal is anticipated in 2013.

The BLM has received roughly 140 comments so far, and the agency intends to make them available online once they’ve been collected and reviewed, Boyd said. The nature of the comments won’t stop the agency from moving to the next step in the process, the environmental assessment, but they will influence the final decision, he said.

Jack Hatfield was the sole commissioner who did not support the county’s letter to the BLM, objecting to its request regarding the appraisal to be done on the BLM land and other provisions.

“I can’t support this letter. I would have modified or deleted 12 out of the 16 (actually 20) parts,” he said.

In a separate discussion later in the day, Hatfield also criticized Dale Will, director of Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, for an email Will sent to the director of conservation group Wilderness Workshop that, according to County Manager Jon Peacock, questioned what is the best entity to manage grazing on the BLM land sought in the trade.

“I believe Pitkin County has gotten a black eye in our conservation community,” Hatfield said, calling for a public discussion of Will’s actions. Will was not present at the time.

Peacock said the email “was not worded well” and that he would like to look into it further.

“This is a personnel issue that is not our responsibility. That’s why we have a county manager,” Commissioner George Newman said.

What transpired, Peacock said, reflects the strong feelings that the proposed land exchange have triggered in the community.

Wealthy landowners Leslie and Abigail Wexner have proposed the trade, seeking to fold 1,296 acres of BLM land into their Two Shoes Ranch south of Carbondale. Another 201 BLM acres in Eagle County also would go into private ownership. The agency would acquire the 557-acre Sutey Ranch, north of Carbondale and adjacent to the Red Hill area, along with the ranch’s historical water rights. The BLM also would take possession of a 112-acre piece along Prince Creek Road near Carbondale that is used by mountain bikers and others to access the Crown, a popular recreation area. Finally, the BLM would receive $1.1 million to develop a management plan for the properties it acquires and for their long-term management.

The county, in addition to seeking an extended comment period, contends in its comments that members of the public weren’t able to successfully submit comments to a BLM email address.

It also asks the BLM to: defer action until the agency adopts its Resource Management Plan for the greater region; consider retaining public rights on the BLM parcels, including grazing, hunting and other recreation; and conduct a more stringent environmental impact statement on the exchange rather than an environmental assessment. The county also requests that the BLM analyze other options to preserve Sutey Ranch and first offer the BLM land to other public agencies if it is to be conveyed out of the agency’s ownership.

The county also has requested that the appraisal of the lands to be exchanged take into account the value of the BLM parcel to the Wexners in particular by virtue of its addition to their existing property holdings at Two Shoes Ranch.

Go to http://www.blm.gov/co/crvfo for more on the swap (look for the Sutey Ranch Land Exchange Information link) or to make comments by Wednesday’s deadline.

Go to http://www.aspentimes.com/landexchangecomments to view the county’s comments regarding the proposed land exchange.

janet@aspentimes.com