Steve Bennett: Guest opinion | AspenTimes.com

Steve Bennett: Guest opinion

Steve Bennett
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

The recent discussion and debate resulting from the Bureau of Land Management’s public comment opportunity on the proposed Sutey Ranch land exchange clearly shows how important public lands are to the people and communities in the Roaring Fork, Eagle and Colorado river valleys.

The BLM’s task in evaluating this proposal is to determine whether it would be in the public’s interest – would the Roaring Fork Valley and the U.S. gain more than they would give up through this exchange?

In a nutshell, under this proposed exchange, the public would gain the 557-acre Sutey Ranch, which is adjacent to the Red Hill Special Recreation Management Area and is an important area for wildlife and includes significant water rights; a 112-acre parcel along Prince Creek Road that provides access to the popular area known as The Crown; and a $1.1 million donation to develop a site-specific management plan and for the areas’ long-term management.

The public would exchange three parcels totaling 1,269 acres above the Prince Creek subdivision and three parcels in Eagle County totaling 201 acres. These parcels have limited public access and receive little public use. Even BLM staff must obtain permission to cross private land in order to visit these parcels to conduct their work. If these lands were exchanged, conservation easements would prevent any future development.

Once we complete this first opportunity for public comment, we will write an environmental assessment that will thoroughly describe and analyze both the resources the public would gain and what would be exchanged. That assessment will be made available for public comment later this summer or fall. We expect to make our final decision in early 2013.

Public comment is a critical piece of our evaluation process. We have not made a decision yet. We want to hear what you think – what concerns you have or issues you wish to see addressed.

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However you feel about the exchange, your comments will be most effective if they are based on accurate information. I want to clarify a few inaccuracies that you might have heard or read about:

First, land exchanges are not based on the number of acres. They are based on the appraised value of each parcel. The Department of the Interior will conduct land appraisals as part of this evaluation process and has strict land-exchange guidelines to ensure that the public receives a fair value.

Next, this kind of exchange is not precedent-setting. The BLM has a history of successful land exchanges in this area, including gaining important lands at Fisher Creek and King Mountain. BLM lands were involved in the recently completed Ryan Land Exchange in Pitkin County.

I also want to clarify that a variety of BLM employees, including myself, have visited all of the parcels that would be exchanged numerous times, both prior to and following this exchange proposal. We’ve done vegetation treatments and land-health assessments, and all resources on these lands have recently been inventoried as part of the upcoming environmental assessment.

And despite a recent newspaper article suggesting otherwise, it is not easy for people to access the parcel above the Prince Creek subdivision without either obtaining permission from a landowner or trespassing. That by itself does not necessarily mean it should be exchanged, but it is a fact that the area receives little public use.

I hope you will visit our website to become more familiar with the exchange proposal and tell us what you think. This first public comment period ends June 20. You can find maps of the proposed areas and additional information about the proposal and how to provide comments at http://www.blm.gov/co/crvfo.