Land trade angers locals

 

A land swap between the feds and the most generous campaign contributor to a Colorado congressman is stirring up controversy on the state’s Western Slope. If the plan goes through, the National Park Service will gain two valuable inholdings, and, proponents say, the traded federal land will be even better protected than it is now (once a planned conservation easement goes into effect). But critics question the deal's public comment process, and the reliability of the conservation easement to protect land the government is trading away.

This spring, Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., introduced the "Central Rockies Land Exchange and National Park System Enhancement Act of 2010." The legislation would exchange about 1,846 acres of public land in six different parcels near Paonia Reservoir, in Gunnison County, for inholdings in Curecanti National Monument, totaling about 911 acres, plus 80 acres inside Dinosaur National Monument, including the home of the man who first found dinosaur bones there.

But after an uproar on the Western Slope, particularly among residents of Delta County, Colo., whose public land access and whose watershed could be most affected, Rep. Salazar announced recently that there was no longer enough time to get the bill through this session. Instead, the bill will be considered next year.

A leaked Bureau of Land Management memo reflects a litany of concerns over the deal, which the National Park Service (which stands to gain from the swap) publicly supports. The bill, according to the memo, could threaten several utility and road rights of way. Also, the BLM land to be traded away may be rich in natural gas. Some have expressed concern that if oil and gas drilling with hydraulic fracturing were to take place on the to-be-traded lands, it could pollute the area’s watershed, including the North Fork of the Gunnison River.

The man who stands to gain from the trade is Salazar's most loyal campaign contributor, William Koch. The land swap will link currently non-contiguous portions of Bear Ranch, his property in Gunnison County. Koch owns Oxbow Mining LLC and Gunnison Energy Corp., a gas drilling company. He says he plans to raise cattle on his ranch, not extract minerals. A conservation easement on the land to be acquired by Bear Ranch would restrict future use of the parcels to agricultural, recreational, open space, and wildlife conservation purposes. If the federal land to be traded is determined to be more valuable than the land the government is receiving, Koch will make up the difference in cash. If the opposite is true, then the extra value will be considered a donation to the government.

Critics of the bill say the people directly affected, Delta County residents, weren't consulted at all in its drafting. Because this proposed land deal is a legislative measure rather than an administrative one, the typical requirements for environmental impact assessments under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and public hearings did not apply (if a land swap includes more than one federal agency or crosses state lines, as this one does, it must be done legislatively rather than through administrative action). Rep. Salazar held public hearings in Gunnison County (where the federal land to be traded away is located), but declined to hold hearings in Delta County, where residents often access forest lands by passing through the to-be-traded parcels.

Ed Marston, president of the Paonia Chamber of Commerce and former publisher of High Country News, raised the questions about the land deal in a letter to the editor of the Delta County Independent after receiving the leaked documents from the Bureau of Land Management. Marston asked for more information, and criticized the secrecy with which he said the deal had been arranged.

Now Marston has come out against the land swap altogether, and Western Slope residents are calling for a new public process on the deal or scrapping the land swap altogether. Brad Goldstein, spokesman for Koch, blames Marston "for the entire mess," according to the Grand Junction Sentinel, and the public discourse has devolved at times to little-restrained invective.

Marston isn't the only person involved in the dispute who has ties to High Country News. HCN board member Andy Wiessner is representing Bill Koch in negotiations on the swap.

For his part, Rep. Salazar has promised that, as the land swap moves forward next year, Delta County residents will be included in the public discussion.