A public land swap for the rich

As a deal gets sweetened, how do you measure what’s fair?

 

Francis Froelicher clambers onto a corner of range fence, balancing on a knotty crossbeam while gripping the brace post with one hand. He’s trying to show me where the fence line goes, where it splits public and private land, and where it ends, at the boundary to western Colorado’s White River National Forest at the base of lofty Mount Sopris. Froelicher, who is a youthful 60, wears shorts, sneakers and a ball cap and carries a nearly empty backpack, onto which he has lashed a four-point elk antler we found in a patch of scrub oak not far from here. From the fence, he shows me what is at stake if a land exchange goes through between the Bureau of Land Management and Leslie Wexner, America’s 86th-richest person.

“I think this fence line goes pretty much up to the hump where those pines are,” Froelicher says, looking south toward the forested slopes of Sopris, a few miles southeast of Carbondale. “So everything to the right of that, all that area we just walked through, the riparian area, where we found the antler, all becomes his.”

Francis Froelicher, a founding member of Colorado Wild Public Lands, outside Carbondale, Colorado.
Brian Calvert

Froelicher is a metalsmith in Carbondale. He designs, crafts and sells chandeliers, fireplace tools and other metalwork to the wealthy homeowners of the Roaring Fork Valley, which includes the ultra-chic town of Aspen. He’s a climber, a hiker and a bow hunter — a person, in other words, who uses federal public land. He is also a founding member of the nascent Colorado Wild Public Lands group, which is challenging the proposed public-land exchange between the BLM and Wexner, the billionaire owner of L Brands Corporation, which includes Bath & Body Works and Victoria’s Secret.

It’s a complicated land exchange, and a rare one, even here in the valley of the super-rich, where a person’s net worth is measured in the kind of money that can snatch up valuable ranchland at will. More and more locals have come to support the exchange in recent months, leaving only a few diehard opponents. Froelicher is one of them. His argument is a tough sell, and he knows it. It’s about what happens to equality when money and power get involved and public lands are traded like baseball cards. 

Since 2002, Wexner has spent more than $85 million on 12 separate properties, effectively surrounding a 1,200-acre parcel of public land with his private 4,790 acres, according to public records. Standing between him and the full ownership of a huge tract of land north of Sopris, between the Crystal River and Prince Creek, is this parcel, the strip of BLM land Froelicher and I have been hiking. “There’s quite a bit of territory between that knoll and the public land on Prince Creek,” Froelicher says, balancing on the fence. “That’s a lot of land.”

It is a lot of land, stretching from the forest boundary across two watersheds, through patches of scrub oak and juniper and aspen. In exchange for it, and a few other scraps, the public is getting two chunks of land: an old ranch where bull elk like to winter, and a wedge of private land that leads to a favorite mountain biking spot already under BLM purview. The question is whether the public is getting a fair deal. Turns out, that’s really hard to answer.  

Public-land exchanges have a long history, since 1911, when legislation passed permitting the secretary of agriculture to acquire land for timber. By the early 2000s, up to 300 such exchanges happened each year, though the pace has tapered off since the recession. The land-exchange program allows agencies to trade odd bits of private and public land, to smooth out the patchwork of ownership across the West and to improve access to public land. At least that’s the idea. In reality, though, these exchanges have often benefited private interests, such as timber or mining companies, who traded used-up tracts for unlogged forest or other pristine swathes of land.

The question is whether the public is getting a fair deal. Turns out, that’s really hard to answer.

The Sutey Ranch Land Exchange — as Wexner’s deal is officially known — in some ways echoes this trend, says Janine Blaeloch, the founder of the Seattle-based Western Lands Project, which monitors exchanges to ensure they are benefitting the public. “It’s tough to talk about this one, because it has elements to it that are really emblematic of how land trades work and that are not that great,” she says. “Somebody who has a lot of money is able to make this kind of proposal and get a lot of what they want. Legally.”

The question is whether that’s how things should be. Froelicher and other members of Colorado Wild Public Lands don’t think so. Anne Rickenbaugh, a founding member of the group and a former trustee at the Pitkin County Open Spaces and Trails program, says she worries that unfair exchanges can hurt public lands, rather than help them. This exchange is one of the bad ones, she says. “I see the potential for this happening a lot more often, and I see a really negative impact on the way we use and access our public land. And it just bothers me that these people have the resources to come in and organize the universe exactly the way they want it.”

Rickenbaugh’s group has about 40 members, many of whom remain anonymous, she says, because they don’t want to cause trouble in a closed community like Aspen, where the Wexners might be business clients. But she says there is quiet opposition, and in August, Colorado Wild Public Lands filed a legal protest.

The proposed exchange would give Wexner the 1,269-acre BLM parcel that splits his ranches and other properties at the base of Mount Sopris, in trade for the 557-acre Sutey Ranch next to Red Hill, which rises above Carbondale to the north and is popular with mountain bikers in the summer and elk and deer in the winter. The exchange would also deliver another 112-acre wedge of land called the West Crown to the BLM, one that is currently cut with bandit biking trails and could be legitimized under the deal. 

The BLM says public recreation will improve at Red Hill, where two hikers stand, in an exchange for little-used land near Mount Sopris, in the distance.
Bureau of Land Management

In its legal protest, Colorado Wild Public Lands says the exchange undervalues the public land that would be lost under the deal. It also says the BLM failed to properly appraise the Wexner-owned properties it would be getting in return. The group further alleges that the Sutey Ranch was split in half so that one half could be part of the exchange and one half could be a “donation” from the Wexners to the BLM, a workaround to a legal mechanism aimed at keeping land exchanges fair.

Colorado Wild Public Lands claims this is not legal. The group also says the BLM’s appraisal value for the Sopris land, $2,500 per acre, is extremely low, considering how much the land will be worth after the swap. Nearby ranches have fetched more than $15,000 per acre, according to the protest.

The BLM says it made the appraisals according to Department of Interior standards. The agency also argues that the land value is low because it largely lacks public access. There is, in fact, a trail from Forest Service land that leads to the BLM parcel, and a private road that, if opened, would allow similar access. Froelicher says that after the exchange, the land will be fully accessible, at least to its owner, via that road and others on nearby Wexner land, meaning the value of the BLM parcel will shoot up after the exchange. 

Wexner, through a representative, declined to comment on the deal. 

David Boyd, a spokesman for the BLM’s Colorado River Valley Field Office, which is evaluating the exchange, says the agency carefully reviewed the plan and found a clear benefit to the public. The BLM is trading a piece of land that is hard to get to and rarely used in order to add more land to Red Hill, which sees some 55,000 visitors per year, including mountain bikers and hikers, he says. The Sopris parcel that Wexner gets, meanwhile, will be placed under a conservation easement, banning any development on it in perpetuity. This, he says, “is actually more protection than it has right now” under the BLM. The BLM will also get a $100,000 donation from the Wexners to develop a management plan for the Sutey Ranch and another $1 million for the long-term management of that land.

Colorado Wild Public Lands claims Leslie Wexner is gaining a huge tract of land, Federal Parcel A, and others, above, to add to his properties, in an unfair exchange for Sutey Ranch and West Crown.
Bureau of Land Management

Wexner undoubtedly benefits from the exchange, Boyd says, but that’s how these deals come forward in the first place. “It’s OK if the public and the proponent (both) benefit,” he says.

The Sutey Ranch, which abuts BLM land to the west and provides winter range for up to 50 bull elk, was the key to the exchange, says Martha Cochran, executive director for the Aspen Valley Land Trust, which supports the exchange, as does the city of Carbondale, Roaring Fork Audubon, the Colorado Division of Wildlife and others. Western Land Exchange, the Denver-based firm brokering the deal for the Wexners, came to the Trust and asked, “If you could have any property in Carbondale, what would be the one?” Cochran says. “And we said, ‘Sutey Ranch.’ ” That ranch, which fell out of use when the two brothers who owned it passed away, had since become winter range for bull elk, 40 to 50 at a time, she says. But the Sutey Ranch was about to be closed on by a developer, who would have turned it into a subdivision. [Disclosure: Andy Wiessner, a board member for High Country News, is a staff member at Western Land Exchange.]

So the Western Land Exchange helped the Wexners get that ranch, which sweetened the deal and got Aspen Valley Land Exchange on board. The Trust will hold the easement for the Sopris parcel. Cochran says she understands that some land exchanges can be bad for the public. “But this one is a different animal,” she says. “This one is exceptional.”

In its protest, Colorado Wild Public Lands says the BLM failed to look for alternative measures to purchase the Sutey Ranch, particularly through the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. 

“The BLM has never said this was a property that they wanted, even in the final analysis,” Rickenbaugh says. “The BLM never takes ownership. It was private, private, private, all the way through. (Aspen Valley Land Trust) is a nonprofit group, but what they do is acquire and manage private property interests.”

The deal is likely to go through. Wexner will get a vast holding, and the public will get increased access to new chunks of land. But to Froelicher, Rickenbaugh and their supporters, there is something unsavory about the way it went down: a wealthy land owner systematically buying property, proposing an exchange, and sweetening the deal bit by bit until enough people were on board. The deal was not spearheaded by the public agency in charge of the land, but was managed by people who know which levers to throw and how to throw them. That can be a hard truth to swallow, even if the net good comes out in favor of the public. 

Back on the Sopris parcel, Froelicher climbs down from the fence. We spend a few minutes looking across the scrub oak, barren of acorns this year, and into the drainage of Thomas Creek, which has fish in it and would be lost in the exchange. “This is some of the best turkey hunting in the state right here, and that would all be gone,” he says. “And of course the deer and elk hunting would be gone.” We talk about bear, too, and mountain lions. It is clear that he wants me to understand, in utility terms, what the land exchange means. But hunters are not noticeably protesting the move — “We don’t understand that,” Froelicher says — and other environmental groups, like the Sierra Club and The Nature Conservancy, have also said they support it.

Particularly irksome, he says, is that Pitkin County Open Space and Trails had sought to buy ranch property that would have kept the Sopris parcel open to the public and provided an additional access point. They were close to closing the deal, he says, when the ranch owner pulled out, selling instead to the Wexners. “It was just bullshit chasing bullshit with this,” he says, exasperated.

Eventually, I ask him what his interest in the issue is. “Why spend so much time and energy on it?” 

“It’s a good question,” he says. “It’s fairness, I guess. It’s what’s right, I guess. We saw that the land exchange values were going to be skewed horribly against the public almost right away. We saw that the process was not friendly to negotiation, and it turned adversarial almost immediately. And whenever that happens, you have to be suspect about what’s behind it. I think clearly he wants to join all these ranches and have a large parcel, and he’s doing it the cheapest way possible.” 

We turn to leave, walking down the hill through an aspen glen, where a suspicious Hereford bull stares us down, through a sloppy marsh, where Froelicher’s dogs, a lab named Rio and a Brittany named Max, drink, then across a sagebrush flat, down a juniper-covered red hill, and into Nettle Creek and the shade of ponderosa pine, hiking toward the highway, where the truck is parked, barely legal, near a parcel of Wexner’s land. Froelicher is a fast walker, and I have time, trailing behind him, to think about the exchange. What it means, if the protest fails, is that another parcel of land will be gone — ostensibly traded for more valuable land elsewhere, but really just shifted into private hands, at the behest of money and power, in the name of the public. 

Brian Calvert is the associate editor of High Country News. He tweets @brcalvert. Photograph on hcn homepage of Mount Sopris in Colorado, courtesy Scott Ingram, CC via Flickr.

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