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Land exchange threatens roadless area, wild rivers

Land exchanges are back in the news with a recently unveiled exchange proposed at the base of Wolf Creek Pass.

A private ranch wants to acquire adjacent national forest roadless lands and river frontage and proposes to trade a remote private parcel that offers winter habitat for deer and elk.

These exchanges typically occur when a wealthy private landowner desires some piece of adjacent national forest. The U.S. Forest Service fortunately cannot just sell off pieces of the national forest when somebody asks, hence landowners resort to finding some isolated piece of private land surrounded by the national forest – an inholding – and offer to trade it to the Forest Service in exchange.

A prime example of this occurred a few years back with Tamarron Resort. The resort wanted more holes for its golf course and suitably valuable homesites, but it was hemmed in by the national forest. The resort’s solution was to purchase a 160-acre private inholding near the upper Hermosa Trailhead for trade.

The Forest Service had always desired to consolidate ownership there in order to preclude incompatible development, and thus a deal was struck. Of course, the Forest Service could have simply purchased the Hermosa Park inholding itself using funds appropriated through the Land and Water Conservation Fund, but Tamarron beat them to it and basically had the agency over a barrel.

Now comes along the latest land exchange, called Valle Seco in reference to the remote 880-acre tract of private land in the oak and piñon-juniper foothills south of Pagosa Springs. The proponent is the Bootjack Ranch, owned by a wealthy Texas oil pipeline billionaire, who for unstated reasons wants ownership of 175 acres of wilderness-quality roadless lands adjacent to the South San Juan Wilderness, and also several sections of river corridor.

One of the controversial aspects of the land exchange is eliminating from public ownership a section of river corridor along the East Fork of the San Juan that just a few years ago was recommended by the Forest Service for the highest form of protection under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

The proponent also wants a stretch of the only publicly accessible section of the San Juan River upstream of Pagosa Springs. Combined with a number of other riverfront parcels and popular backcountry camping areas, it’s dubious what benefit there is to the public here.

So why is it under consideration? As is often the case in these proposed exchanges, ominous threats of inappropriate development of the trade parcel are dangled before the public. In this case, the proponent has threatened to turn the 880-acre Valle Seco parcel into a domestic elk farm, with 8-foot-high fences all the way around.

It’s another example where the Forest Service could just use Land and Water Conservation Fund money to purchase the Valle Seco inholding, if a willing seller shared the public’s values in safeguarding wildlife winter range.

As commonly is the case with these land exchanges, the proponent has hired a lobbying firm to advocate for the land exchange. It probably also doesn’t hurt his cause that the owner of the Bootjack Ranch, Kelcy Warren, has donated over $1 million to Donald Trump’s inauguration and re-election. That undoubtedly makes it much harder for the Forest Service to just say no.

The Valle Seco land exchange is in its early stages of evaluation. It clearly requires preparation of a full-fledged environmental impact statement given the controversial nature of disposing of roadless areas, wild rivers and public river access. The Forest Service will have to rewrite its management plan and disregard previous land protection decisions if the project proceeds.

Mark Pearson is executive director of San Juan Citizens Alliance. Reach him at mark@sanjuancitizens.org.