I have long appreciated High Country News' in-depth treatment of natural resource issues. While I have not always agreed with your conclusions, I have usually believed that articles were thoroughly researched and conclusions were based upon objective analysis of the facts as they were known. One recent exception was the May 2 "Opinion" on the role of the U.S. Forest Service in the Chapman land exchange.
The opinion strongly criticizes a recently consummated land exchange between the Forest Service and Thomas Chapman, the former owner of private land which was being developed within the West Elk Wilderness on the Gunnison National Forest. That land exchange allowed the Forest Service to acquire an essential private inholding and protect the wilderness from further development. In return, the Forest Service conveyed approximately 107 acres of land in the vicinity of Telluride.
Steve Hinchman alleges the Forest Service was snookered and conveyed to Mr. Chapman property in excess of the value of the land we got from him and makes numerous unfounded allegations about the legality of the transaction and the motives of the persons involved. The article attempts to malign the motives and integrity of Mr. Chapman for developing the West Elk lands. We neither condemn nor support Mr. Chapman. We merely note for the record that he owned the West Elk land and had the right of a private landowner, by law, to the reasonable use and enjoyment of his land. Mr. Chapman exercised his rights by constructing a building on what was then his land within the West Elk Wilderness.
The article also alleges a disparity in the values of the properties being exchanged. This claim is simply erroneous. The law requires that the properties be of equal value. The Forest Service used several fully licensed and qualified professional land appraisers to assess the values, and they concluded that the equivalent valuation is correct. They also identified major flaws in the appraisal valuations submitted by opponents of this land exchange. Thus, there is no basis for the contention that the government is buying out Mr. Chapman at inflated prices.
The Forest Service has pursued the acquisition of the West Elk Wilderness properties for over a decade. The reason is simple. Under the Wilderness Act, publicly owned lands within wilderness areas must be managed to preserve their wilderness character without roads, structures or other evidence of man's activities. It is very difficult to accomplish those goals when privately owned lands within the wilderness are being developed. Congress did not grant the Forest Service authority to acquire wilderness inholdings without the consent of the owner. Lacking the funds to acquire title to these lands, we were left with no other option but to seek an equal value exchange of lands.
Elizabeth Estill is the Rocky Mountain Regional Forester for the Forest Service.