“Mount Sopris” by Doug Ellis

June 27, 2017; Aspen Public Radio

Nonprofit Colorado Wild Public Lands (COWPL) is suing the federal government over a land exchange.

Three months ago, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) traded almost 1,500 acres of land near the base of Mount Sopris in Colorado, part of the Rocky Mountain range a few hours west of Denver. They received two properties totaling 670 acres of once-private land close to popular recreation areas in Carbondale in return.

COWPL, whose mission is to protect the integrity, size, and quality of public lands in Colorado, claims the BLM and its appraiser significantly undervalued the federal land. This, they contend, led to an unequal exchange by the government, violating the equal value requirements of the Federal Land Management and Policy Act.

Also mentioned in the suit is part of the process of trading the land. COWPL says all the information, including the appraisals, was not available to the public during the comment period. The organization argues that this violates procedures established under the National Environmental Policy Act concerning public participation.

From a statement released by COWPL:

Coloradoans have a right to know the players, motives and processes behind government transfers of public land into private ownership…COWPL closely monitors land exchanges throughout the state to increase public awareness and involvement.

The suit follows a long battle between the organization and the BLM. The land-swap has been in the works for six years and places the 557-acre Sutey Ranch and 112-acre Haines parcel, near a popular bicycle trail system, into public hands. The owners of the traded lands, Leslie and Abigail Wexner of Two Shoes Ranch, also agreed to donate a separate piece of property of 235 acres, valued at over $2 million.

In addition to land, the Wexners pledged to donate $100,000 to the BLM for the development of a Sutey Ranch management plan, and $1 million to Aspen Valley Land Trust to hold in perpetuity for BLM’s long-term management of the newly acquired properties.

In exchange, Two Shoes Ranch, which owns about 4,800 of adjacent acreage on either side, would take ownership of 1,268 acres of public land. This section of land consolidates the other acreage owned by Two Shoes Ranch, land which the BLM said was virtually inaccessible to the public due to being surrounded by private land.

COWPL says that now that Two Shoes Ranch land is further joined, the Wexners will be able to sell the land for much more than it was valued in this deal. And if the name Wexner sounds familiar, that’s because Mr. Wexner is the founder of L Brands, which includes Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works.

Two Shoes Ranch appears to be quite generous, but what really is the price of public land? Is this a fair deal for the public? Public land exchanges have been around for over 100 years with the goal of improving access to public land, but often private entities benefit. In the past, this has been timber companies who traded up used land for unlogged forest. Only time will tell if public benefit will be championed in this case—a lot of cyclists are probably quite happy with the land swap, if nothing else. In the meantime, however, COWPL and conservation loyalists will have to await the outcome of the lawsuit.—Angie Wierzbicki