Proposed Land Swap Triggers Colorado Dust-Up - WSJ.


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AUGUST 20, 2010

Land Swap Triggers Colorado Dust-Up

Tony Prendergast

Billionaire William Koch wants to trade land elsewhere to acquire a strip of federal land, including the road seen above, that separates sections of his 4,500-acre ranch in Colorado.

DENVER—Billionaire energy magnate William Koch's 4,500-acre cattle ranch in western Colorado is split in two by a large strip of federal land—and he wants to change that. The government land includes a road that takes hunters and hikers into a popular national forest, but some visitors stray and trespass onto Mr. Koch's property, according to his ranch manager. So Mr. Koch wants to take title to the federal land— and close the road—by swapping the parcel for land he owns elsewhere in the West. But the way the swap would be executed has drawn criticism in the region. Because the proposal involves multiple federal agencies and land in two states, the deal can't be dispensed with through normal administrative process, which include local public hearings and a thorough environmental review. Instead, it must be handled by Congress, through legislation mandating the swap. That legislation has been introduced by Rep. John Salazar, a Democrat who represents the region (and who is the brother of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar) and who has received campaign contributions from Mr. Koch. "There is always suspicion around a deal like this that is benefitting someone who is wealthy and influential...and this has not been a real open, public process," said Janine Blaeloch, director of the Western Lands Project, a nonprofit group that monitors land swaps and generally is opposed to transfers of public land into private hands. Mr. Koch's spokesman said he also has given to other Democratic candidates and causes, as well as to some Republicans. "We support candidates where we do business," said Brad Goldstein, a spokesman for Mr. Koch, adding that there is no "quid pro quo."


Proposed Land Swap Triggers Colorado Dust-Up -

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Federal officials at a Bureau of Land Management field office raised several concerns about the proposed swap in a draft memo that was leaked to environmentalists. They noted that a study in the 1980s of federal holdings in the area identified other parcels that could be traded without harm to the public interest—but the road through Mr. Koch's land was not on that list. BLM spokesman Steve Hall said the agency has not yet taken a position on the deal. The proposed deal would give Mr. Koch about 1,800 acres of BLM land, including the road that bisects his ranch and some additional mountainous parcels. In exchange, Mr. Koch would deed over to the public about 1,000 acres of land including a small parcel of historic value that sits inside Dinosaur National Monument in Utah. The deal also includes five luxury-home sites in Colorado that he bought for $2.7 million and that have long been coveted by the National Park Service for their scenic value and because they provide habitat for the sage grouse. Mr. Koch is the founder and president of Oxbow Group, an energy conglomerate that includes a coal mine employing hundreds in western Colorado . Some in the area say he's being unfairly attacked because of his wealth. "Contrary to all the hype and innuendo, the public is not getting screwed here ," Chris Dickey, managing editor of the local Gunnison Country Times, wrote in a column Thursday. The land deal has the support of local county commissioners, who hope the National Park Service will build a visitor's center on a parcel it would acquire in the swap, drawing more tourists to the area. An aide to Rep. Salazar says he got involved at the request of those county officials, not Mr. Koch. "In this economic climate, if there's a potential they see to bring in more tourism dollars, he thinks that's worth looking at," said Eric Wortman, a spokesman for the congressman. Mr. Wortman said Rep. Salazar also would be open to reworking the details. One of the world's wealthiest men, Mr. Koch has influenced federal land-use policy in Colorado before. Earlier this year, one of his companies received federal permission to expand a coal mine by building temporary roads through a swath of national forest protected as "roadless" land. The property that Mr. Koch wants to acquire in Colorado includes prime, low-lying elk-hunting ground and County Road 2, which federal officials and local hunters say offers the easiest public access into the Ragged Mountains wilderness area. Except in inclement weather, the road can be driven by most vehicles. "It's an annoyance to him, but to us, it's access," said Ed Marston, a local environmental activist. There are only two other points of entry to the wilderness area, one a steep, badly eroded trail for all-terrain vehicles and the other a rough road suitable for high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicles, said Tony Prendergast, a former Forest Service wilderness ranger. Mr. Koch says he will give the federal government $250,000 to improve one of those access routes if the land swap goes through. (His offer drops to $50,000 if the deal goes through on the condition—sought by some local officials—that he let hikers and bikers, but not vehicles cut through his property.)

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