Paul Andersen: Fair Game

The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

Why should Les Wexner stop at Prince Creek Divide in his quest for a lordly estate? Mount Sopris, the crown jewel of the Elk Range, is more in keeping with his ambitions. He could probably pick it up for spare change.

I suspect that the Sutey Ranch land swap is only a smoke screen for this bigger claim. How will he do it? It’s easy. Manipulate a few more key parcels in the real estate chess game he’s playing and make an offer the Forest Service can’t refuse.

Despite his reputation for philanthropy, Wexner knows no bounds when it comes to material acquisition. When he built the Limitless, it was the largest private yacht in the world. His Red Mountain mansion in Aspen stands out like a junior high school. I suspect that his home on Prince Creek looks nothing like Thoreau’s cabin at Walden. Mount Sopris would be just another bangle on his keychain.

Some criticize Wexner on the Sutey swap for being manipulative by co-opting neighbors and land managers with payoffs and pledges of stewardship. This may be true because not even his supporters characterize him as an altruist whose motive is the betterment of the Commons.

The Sutey deal is empire building, pure and simple, on public lands. If there’s something irksome about that, there ought to be. Public lands are not chess pieces for the rich. They belong to us all, and we all have a say.

But Wexner is well-accustomed to exercising his financial muscle and personal will for the goals he chooses. You don’t build a manufacturing empire based on ladies underwear without the dynamic force and oversize persona that is driving the Sutey swap. How else does one person amass more than $3 billion?

The Sutey swap is a case study in the power of capital leveraged upon the public landscape, a tried and true practice throughout American history since the original Charter Companies claimed Virginia.

To the detractors of the swap, Wexner’s moves have been unprincipled and morally shaky, even though they are unchallenged legally. And where Wexner’s minions tried to unify disparate interest groups into a loving circle of consensus, there remains acrimony.

Driving wedges into the community by conspiring to establish what amounts to a Spanish land grant is not a clean outcome for a seasoned plutocrat like Wexner, but that’s apparently a trifle. The real goal is to assemble an estancia of such size and grandeur that even die-hard capitalists will wince. So what if a few sensibilities are violated in the process?

Wexner buys land like the rest of us buy apples. My hope is that once he has acquired all of Mount Sopris, his dreams of empire will end. Perhaps then he can seclude himself in a gated citadel on the very top of the peak, a snowmelt road winding picturesquely to its summit.

As a successful capitalist, this is his due. Considering the lofty contribution to society that Wexner has made through enterprises like Victoria’s Secret lingerie, he has earned the right to designate his private national park.

It is apparent to this observer that Wexner’s elevated social position must be measured not only on ledger sheets but in the ample bust lines at Victoria’s Secret. The Sutey swap is being handled with the same seductive quality as the marketing of skimpy undergarments – with a tantalizing undercurrent of impropriety.

After Wexner establishes his kingdom, Mount Sopris will transform into Mount Olympus. From the cloud-swept peak occasional visits by Victoria’s Secret supermodel goddesses will be paid at the Pour House and the Village Smithy for us mortals to ogle and praise.

Looking up at Mount Sopris, the once-sacred mountain of the Utes from whom all this land was taken by a succession of clever land deals, credit must be given to the socio-economic system that showers one man with enough wealth to own an outsize portion of God’s green earth.

This legacy of wealth and prestige should come to mind every time we raise our eyes from our peasant labor in the potato fields to the gleaming mountain behind the electrified elk fence.

Paul Andersen’s column appears Mondays in The Aspen Times. He can be reached by email at