A major land exchange 22 years in the making is moving toward completion, barring public opposition — the loudest of which is coming from a Basalt-based public lands group with a history of opposing such deals.
The BLM on Jan. 17 approved a land exchange with billionaire philanthropist Paul Tudor Jones that involves the agency swapping nine of its parcels, currently landlocked within Jones’ 25,000-acre Blue Valley Ranch straddling Grand and Summit counties, for roughly 2 miles of public access and amenities, plus badly needed restoration work on the Blue River.
But Colorado Wild Public Lands, a niche advocacy group that reviews federal land swaps to make sure they’re in the public interest and has supported only two Colorado land exchanges since forming in 2014, says it can’t support the deal — at least not until there are assurances that public land being traded to the private ranch is protected from future development and a new appraisal of both the private and public land are completed.
Buried deep in the second volume of appendices to the 107-page Environmental Impact Statement approving the swap after 22 years of negotiation is notation that Blue Valley Ranch would not be willing to exchange lands that were covered by conservation easements.
“That to me raises flags,”said Graham Ward, a spokesperson for Colorado Wild Public Lands. “Obviously we know the private owner has a good track record with a conservation mindset, but who says if they change hands, they won’t want to develop or sell again? Conservation easements protect land in the long term. If you’re giving away these very special properties along the river, it can end up damaging ecological resources like wetlands and fens, and scenic values that are currently protected.”
The BLM’s official notice of decision started the clock ticking on a 45-day protest period that ends March 2.
Jones’ hefty promises
In the deal, Jones will trade 1,830 acres appraised at $4.5 million for 1,489 acres of BLM land appraised at $4.1 million. The $495,000 difference in value is considered a donation to the U.S. government.
Rob Firth, a spokesman for Blue Valley Ranch, said the swap will consolidate land ownership patterns on the ranch, which will help it continue with its primary mission: conservation of wildlife and the ecosystem, both proven to thrive on a landscape scale, defined as “large, interconnected, unfragmented landscapes that allow wildlife to migrate and move freely.”
Firth said the current configuration includes BLM parcels, surrounded by Blue Valley Ranch land, that are remnants of The Homestead Act of 1862. The act accelerated western expansion by offering 160-acre plots of surveyed land to settlers after American Indians were forced from their land onto reservations. About 4 million people made claims in 30 states, the largest numbers in Montana, North Dakota, Colorado and Nebraska.
“The result we see today around the West is one where federal and private parcels are sometimes intermingled,” said Firth, “or there will be a federal or private parcel surrounded by opposite ownership. Paul Jones became a landowner in the Lower Blue River Valley in the 1990s. Over the years, he acquired other adjacent ranch lands and added them to Blue Valley Ranch. The federal parcels sitting inside these privately owned lands are simply a remnant of history; these parcels are land that was never successfully homesteaded.”
The parcels are difficult for the BLM to access and manage, however, and they’re awkward for the ranch to manage around, Firth said. And because the inholdings are surrounded by private land, the public gets little or no access to them.
If the deal goes through, Jones has promised to provide 1,100 acres of new public access for recreation, $600,000 to Summit County for new acquisitions of open space, and the protection of both Green Mountain and San Toy Mountain south of Kremmling from development.
Boaters will get a new public takeout. Other day-use recreational amenities will include wheelchair accessible fishing platforms, 2.3 miles of trails, picnic areas, a vault toilet and two developed parking areas.
The estimated cost of improvements Jones has promised exceeds $2 million, all of which he will bankroll. An endowment will fund long-term operation and maintenance. “To ensure all of this will occur, a performance bond/letter of credit must be posted before closing to cover these costs and the endowment,” Firth said. Taxpayers will pay nothing.
That all sounds like a boon for river users, but Ward says the tradeoff is not as straightforward as it sounds.
A discrepancy of acres
Colorado Wild Public Lands believes one BLM parcel along the Colorado River cannot be traded because it was acquired through a previous trade. According to rules in the 1976 Federal Land Policy Management Act, land traded to BLM should remain public in perpetuity.
“BLM Parcel J,” as it’s known, is north and east of the other parcels in the deal and “with the exchange as it reads now, the BLM will retain a certain amount of feet in ownership off of the riverbank,” Ward said. “But there are a number of other acres attached to it as of now that are public property that would be traded away.”
Firth said that claiming land obtained in a land exchange cannot ever be traded away as part of another land exchange is “simply wrong,” and that there is no legal basis for such an assertion. “Once acquired, the land becomes a part of the greater body of public lands and (is) subject to management and disposal as are any other public lands.”
Ward said boaters already have access to a takeout at Spring Creek Bridge on Blue Valley Ranch property and that the exchange would merely formalize an access easement there and add rest stops. But there’s more to it than that, he said.
Currently, sections of the easement belong to the U.S. Forest Service and not BLM, Ward said, and that one component of the exchange Colorado Wild Public Lands “has issues with” is that while Blue Valley Ranch claims the deal will “unlock” riverfront access, the land in question can’t be unlocked without Forest Service approval. “All of the exchange documents talk about ‘if’ USFS approves and builds, and there is language that only holds BVR accountable to funding if the trail is built within three years of the exchange closing,” he said. “That area crosses bighorn sheep and lynx habitat, which seems to make the trail far from guaranteed.”
Firth said that Blue Valley Ranch met with the Forest Service during the development of the Environmental Impact Statement, and the agreement spells out the pedestrian access easement over ranch land as well as the possible trail over Forest Service land.
Stakeholder support for a healthy river
Kirk Klancke, president of the Colorado River Headwaters chapter of Trout Unlimited, praised the exchange, saying Jones also promised to do much-needed stream channeling on the Blue River just up from its confluence with the Colorado River. Doing so will help keep the Blue cold — good for the survival of fish — and allow the passage of sediment to create a healthy aquatic habitat, which will help both the Colorado and the Blue.
“Three-quarters of a mile of river is seriously degraded,” Firth said. “The river channel will be deepened, and narrowed, while creating a new bench on both sides of the main channel to accommodate high flows without the erosion now occurring to the banks of the river. New riparian vegetation will be planted. Boulders will be placed in the river to create riffles, holding water and pools to enhance fish habitat.”
Klancke, who lives in Grand County, added that while Trout Unlimited cares about recreation, it remains a conservation organization. “The Blue River’s stream bed has to be engineered to remain healthy, especially with such heavily manipulated flows. Here in Grand County, we’re dealing with Denver Water’s diversions, which impact the Fraser River’s ability to move sediment. It’s taken us years to do one project on the Fraser, and this guy is going to do probably a million dollars worth of work very quickly on the Blue.”
On its website, the BLM said it “coordinated closely with local governments, other agencies, and the public, and negotiated with the proponent to ensure that the land exchange benefits the public interest.”
But Ward said public-private deals like this are “inherently long and complex” and that public attention can wane, putting public lands at risk.
And in this case, the land appraisals on both owners’ properties were done in 2017, he said. “The official report is going on five years old. No normal property exchange purchasing proposal would go off of 5-year-old appraisals, especially in a mountain town.”
BLM makes the final decision
Firth maintains it was BLM’s job to look at the big picture and to fully consider the issues, and that the agency’s decision shows the exchange is overwhelmingly in the public interest. He urged those with concerns or questions to “take the time to study the exchange as a whole,” because “once one fully understands the many pieces of the exchange and the overwhelming positives to be created, we are optimistic even skeptics about land exchanges in general will agree as to the many benefits it will provide.”
The deal is backed by Grand County, Summit County and the Town of Kremmling, along with the Colorado Whitewater Association, the American Whitewater Association, Friends of the Lower Blue and the Colorado Wildlife Federation.
Fishing and recreation are multimillion dollar industries in Grand and Summit counties. If completed to specifications, the access and improvements on the Blue River could attract thousands of new visitors. Grand County commissioners applauded the decision, highlighting Jones’ promise to establish the endowment for ongoing operation and maintenance.
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In 2000, Jones took on the problem of cars killing wildlife crossing Colorado 9 between Green Mountain Reservoir and Kremmling, by directing his staff to document collisions. Then in 2016, with funding that included a $4 million donation from Jones, CDOT, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and other partners completed Colorado’s first-of-its-kind wildlife overpass and underpass system on the deadly stretch of highway. The finished project includes two wildlife overpasses, five wildlife underpasses, nine pedestrian walk-throughs, 61 wildlife escape ramps and 29 wildlife guards, all connected by 10.3 miles of 8-foot-high wildlife fence.
“Jones does good things for the communities he’s in,” Klancke said.
Colorado Wild Public Land’s Franz Froelicher said his group hopes to be in a “direct conversation with the proponent of the exchange to answer questions it has around the BLM’s decision-making process, and “so we can make an accurate review of the public benefits.”
Until the BLM and Jones formally close on the swap, land ownership and public access doesn’t change.
CORRECTION: This story was updated Feb. 27, 2023, at 5:30 p.m. to clarify that Blue Valley Ranch would not swap land if conservation easements were required and to specify location of that language in a federal document. Details also were added regarding public and trail access over some ranch and Forest Service land.