Public speaks out on Sutey land exchange | AspenTimes.com

Public speaks out on Sutey land exchange

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

Janet Urquhart The Aspen Times

Public comments on the Sutey Ranch-BLM land exchange – a proposed swap of parcels on the outskirts of Carbondale – run nearly 2-to-1 in favor of the deal, with many supporters focusing on what they said will be enhanced recreational opportunities and wildlife protection – a “win-win” for the public.

The Bureau of Land Management took the unusual step of posting all of the comments online in response to the interest the proposal has generated in the community, according to BLM spokesman David Boyd. To view the 360 pages of comments in a PDF format, go to http://www.aspentimes.com/blm and click on Sutey Ranch Land Exchange Information. Then look for Public Comments under the Documents section.

The BLM, after about a year of internal analysis, announced in May that the proposed land trade was worthy of further study and initiated a 45-day comment period that ended June 20. The proposal, in a nutshell, would place 1,268 acres of BLM land, in Pitkin County on the shoulder of Mount Sopris, in private hands. The property would be folded into Two Shoes Ranch, owned by billionaires Leslie and Abigail Wexner.

In return, the Wexners would turn the 557-acre Sutey Ranch, adjacent to the Red Hill Special Recreation Area north of Carbondale and located in Garfield County, over to BLM ownership. The Wexners purchased the Sutey property with the trade in mind and have offered to donate $1 million for long-term management of the property if the BLM acquires it, plus $100,000 to develop a site-specific management plan for the property.

The BLM would also acquire 117 acres in Pitkin County along Prince Creek Road, used by mountain bikers to access BLM roads and trails on the Crown, a popular recreation area. The land, referred to as the West Crown parcel, is privately owned, but bandit trails were created on it over time.

“We are extremely pleased that the West Crown parcel has been added to the exchange, and we commend the Wexners for going the extra mile to acquire it,” wrote Mike Pritchard, Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association board president.

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Among supporters of the trade, some embrace the notion of parking and access at Sutey, while others are opposed to trailhead facilities there, though a biking connection between Red Hill and Sutey is a goal for mountain biking interests.

Others point out that uses of Sutey – bike trails and a trailhead, for example – won’t be determined until after the trade is a done deal. A winter closure of Sutey, at the very least, has been advocated by wildlife officials.

Many citizens who filled out a BLM comment form at two open houses conducted during the comment period simply indicated that they either favored or opposed the swap, without offering further detail.

Among those who expounded on their thoughts, many urged the BLM to ignore the county boundary lines in considering the swap, and to discount objections that have been raised by Pitkin County officials.

“Please don’t let Pitkin County divide the valley by being against this,” said Louis Meyer of Carbondale.

A number of citizens suggested the recreational opportunities presented by the Sutey property are superior to those on what they called little-used BLM land. They said protection of wildlife habitat on both properties would be enhanced if the trade is approved.

“Opponents of this exchange seem to feel that if this (BLM) land stays in public hands, it will be intrinsically better than if it slips into private hands. I believe that just the opposite is true,” wrote Nancy Smith of Carbondale.

Glenwood Springs resident David McConaughy said of the BLM land: “The majority of the area, as far as I can tell, is largely inaccessible and certainly unvisited by me. Putting this area in private ownership with conservation easements will benefit me personally in the same way public ownership does now – I get to look at it and know that it is wilderness largely undisturbed by man, including me.”

“Developable land (Sutey) will convert to public use. Federal land with poor public access will convert to undevelopable private use. This is a good deal,” wrote Ken Olson of Carbondale.

Others voiced fear that Sutey Ranch would be developed if the trade doesn’t happen, though one individual pointed out the Wexners could protect it if they so desire, with or without the trade. Conservation easements to prevent development, including resource extraction, would be placed on both the Sutey and BLM parcels under the proposal.

“We believe the inherent value of the private lands to be converted to public lands and the associated endowment … provide a multitude of public benefits that far outweigh the current value of the public lands to be converted to private land,” said a letter from Garfield County commissioners.

Wrote Tom Cardamone, former executive director of the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies: “I urge all to put aside distracting concerns about wealth and public access and recognize that in a world of ever-diminishing natural values and unrelenting human encroachment, this exchange represents a rare reversal of those losses.”

Some citizens urged the BLM to secure an easement on a former railroad grade along the Crystal River – on land recently acquired by the Wexners – to help forward plans for extension of a bike trail up the Crystal Valley, while others specifically advocated against that approach. The land isn’t part of the deal as proposed.

Others called for a careful appraisal of all the lands in play, and consideration of the added value the BLM land might bring to Two Shoes Ranch if the strip of public land dividing much of it becomes part of the ranch’s holdings.

Many opponents decried the loss of public hunting access on the BLM land, turning Two Shoes into a private hunting preserve, and urged the agency to retain public hunting on the land if the deal goes through.

Others were critical of the deal the Wexners have made with adjacent Prince Creek homeowners that allows them continued access to the BLM parcel but prohibits them from opening their land to general public access.

A letter from James Udall, president of the Prince Creek Homeowners Association, supports the exchange.

Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor of the White River National Forest, took no position on the trade, but addressed questions about why the BLM land can’t become part of the national forest if the BLM is willing to give it up. It is outside of the White River’s boundaries and such a move would require congressional subcommittee oversight and approval, he explained.

“We have no plans to seek this type of approval,” Fitzwilliams wrote.

Many who voiced opposition to the trade indicated they didn’t consider the proposal a fair swap, or don’t want to see the federal lands traded away.

“First of all, I don’t think it is ethical to change public land to private land. Also, exchanging 674 acres for 1,268 acres of prime public land at the base of Sopris is not at all fair to the public. The Wexners do not need a gift of almost 600 acres and the public does not need to lose it,” wrote Linda Singer Froning of Carbondale.

“Do the right thing and deny this request to take my land,” offered an anonymous individual.

“I do not believe that any private individual should ever be allowed to bargain for public land to increase their private holdings,” wrote Anna Naeser of Basalt.

The BLM intends to conduct an environmental assessment of the swap, a preliminary draft of which may be ready for public comment in the fall, but Mary Lou Zordel of Basalt may have best summed up the agency’s task:

“Your job is agonizing and I wish you well.”

janet@aspentimes.com