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Western Colorado Land Swap

Western Colorado Land Swap

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Published by: CCWebClients on Feb 25, 2011
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02/25/2011

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 Western Colorado land swap runs intoopposition
By Nancy Lofholm
 
The Denver Post 
 Posted: 08/17/2010 01:00:00 AM MDTGRAND JUNCTION  A land swap involving one of the richest men in the world anda congressman who enjoys hunting on the ranch has stirred up local controversyand riled a national land-exchange watchdog group.U.S. Rep. John Salazar introduced a bill in April that would give energy magnate BillKoch just over 1,840 acres of Bureau of Land Management land and a 3-acre sliverof Forest Service land in Gunnison County for Koch giving the National Park Service991 acres in Dinosaur National Monument and the Curecanti National RecreationArea.The trade was initiated more than two years ago by Koch  the world's 316thrichest man, according to Forbes, and Salazar's most generous campaigncontributor.A representative of Salazar's said the swap was initiated by Gunnison Countyofficials and that it has garnered support from local officials as well as nationalpoliticians and agencies. The National Park Service supports the swap because it willensure protection of two valuable pieces of land that otherwise could be developed.U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall of Colorado have filed a companionmeasure in the Senate.But others, including some staffers at the Bureau of Land Management, worry thatKoch will be getting land with much higher value because of its potential for energydevelopment. They also complain that there was very little opportunity for publicinput and scrutiny of the deal. There were no public hearings specifically devoted togathering public comment, as there are with most proposed government landswaps."I'm not very pleased about it. It doesn't look like a very good deal for me or otherpeople in this area," said Tony Prendergast, a former Forest Service ranger. He saidgood hunting land will be taken out of the public domain and that a conservationeasement that is to be part of the trade wouldn't prevent Koch from drilling there.That kind of talk brings Koch representative Brad Goldstein to shouting anger."It's absurd," Goldstein said of criticism that the swap would not benefit the publicand of allegations the matter purposefully avoided adequate public scrutiny. "Theyare trying to twist and distort this."
Lack of spotlight
 At the root of the controversy is the fact that the swap is being carried out withlegislation rather than through an administrative process as most of the land swapsin the country are done.That means there is no environmental review process before the trade takes place:There are no formal public hearings that would put a spotlight on the trade ratherthan making it just another item on a county commission's agenda.
 
That is one reason a national watchdog group devoted to overhauling the way the government trades public land is lookingaskance.The Western Lands Project in Seattle is questioning the transparency and is troubled that Koch included land in two states(Colorado and Utah) and land involving two federal management agencies. Those factors guarantee the trade must bedone through legislation."The thing that bothers me about this bill  it appears to me this whole thing was engineered to keep it out of the normalpublic process. All of our questions could have been answered if this hadn't been done legislatively," Western Landsdirector Janine Blaeloch said.Salazar spokesman Eric Wortman contends questions have been answered. And he pointed out that the proposal, theCentral Rockies Land Exchange and National Park System Enhancement Act of 2010, has a long way to go before it can bepassed.Wortman said his boss introduced the bill only after he was approached by Gunnison County officials to do so.Gunnison officials supported the effort after Koch's representatives came to town to present the potential trade. Having avisitor center along Blue Mesa Reservoir, as the Park Service plans if the swap goes through, would boost tourism in thatcounty.Goldstein said the public has already had plenty of opportunity to comment while the issue was on the agendas of theGunnison County commissioners, the Gunnison City Council and Gunnison Trails Commission.Trails Commission chairwoman Jolene Fending said she agreed to support the swap because it comes with assurances thattrails will be upgraded. But the method bothers her."I prefer the good old public process with hearings," she said.About 100 land trades have been carried out in Western states since 2003. Fewer than 20 percent of those have beendone through legislation, which is not the favored method of land managers."We can offer our input on these, but at the end of the day we do what Congress tells us," said Steve Renal, a landsprogram specialist with the Forest Service.Koch, 69, rarely is seen around Gunnison and Delta counties, but he is considered a formidable figure there. Between hisranch and his energy businesses, he employs about 400 people and is a big donor to local causes.He is the founder, owner and president of the Palm Beach, Fla.-based Oxbow Group. Oxbow owns the West Elk Coal Minedown the road from Koch's 5,000-acre ranch. Koch is also the owner of Gunnison Energy Corp., a company involved in gasdrilling and transport in Gunnison, Mesa and Delta counties.Goldstein said Koch is only interested in having a much larger ranch in Gunnison County so he can hunt and ride horsesand have a place to put his extensive collection of Western memorabilia. He has had enough of people trespassing fromthe quarter-mile-wide strip of public land that runs through the ranch. The trade would fix that.Andy Weissmann with the Western Land Group, a land-exchange consulting firm that is bordering the swap, said the publicshould be as happy with the trade as Koch is: The National Parks system will be getting two key pieces of land in theexchange.Koch chose those pieces to use in a trade for the land near his ranch after consulting with public land managers.
Option on monument
 Koch doesn't quite own all the property he proposes to trade. He holds a $300,000 option to purchase a piece in theDinosaur National Monument in Utah that includes the homesite of the monument founder. If the swap goes through, Kochwould exercise that option, then turn it over to the Park Service.Koch's other piece of land for trade is on the south side of Blue Mesa Reservoir where the Park Service wants to build avisitor center. Koch paid $2.7 million for that land.

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