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Proposed Canyons of Ancients’ land buy raises questions in Montezuma County

Purchase would conflict with county’s stance against losing land to federal agencies
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, west of Cortez, could grow by 647 acres. (Journal file photo)

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument is looking to add 647 acres by purchasing a private property inholding in Yellow Jacket Canyon.

The 176,000-acre monument west of Cortez contains the highest known archaeological site density in the United States with well-preserved evidence of Native American cultures.

However, the proposed purchase conflicts with the Montezuma County Board of County Commission stance against losing private land to federal agencies without an equal allocation of private lands.

The monument is part of the Tres Rios District of the Bureau of Land Management.

Federal land agencies will consider purchasing private inholdings to add to public lands if approached by a willing seller, said Tres Rios Field Manager Connie Clementson on Tuesday in a presentation to the Montezuma County Board of County Commissioners about the proposed transaction.

She said monument and BLM officials were contacted by landowner Mary Jane Austin, who expressed interest in selling the 647 acres. The land is divided into parcels of 163 acres and 484 acres.

A trail on the property follows along Yellow Jacket Creek. There are no structures or oil and gas wells on the properties.

Acquisition of private inholdings benefit the monument by making it more contiguous for management purposes and by increasing access to the public, Clementson said.

BLM land acquisition goes through environmental analysis and public comment under the National Environmental Policy Act before a decision is made.

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Public scoping of the proposal is expected to begin in January, followed by land, environment and cultural surveys. There will be opportunity for public comment.

The BLM has secured funding for the land purchase through the federal Land Water Conservation Fund, Clementson said. Information about the purchase price was not made available.

According to the Montezuma County Assessor’s Office, the 163-acre lot sold for $48,600 in 1996, and the 484-acre parcel sold for $153,000 in 1998.

The Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act allows for federal land agencies to purchase and sell off land using money generated from strategic federal land sales.

Montezuma County officials pointed out that in 2017, county commissioners passed a resolution supporting no net loss of private lands in Montezuma County.

The concept entails offsetting the acquisition of federally owned lands with an equal allocation of private land.

“What does the BLM offer to offset the acquisition?” asked county attorney Ian MacLaren.

Clementson said she recognizes the county’s concern about losing private lands, and that the BLM is open to working with the county on potentially selling isolated parcels of BLM land to the private sector.

Selling federal land “is a long and complicated process with a lot of criteria to follow,” she said.

The land must be surveyed for cultural and endangered species resources and studied to determine whether it is in the best interest of the public to dispose of it.

If the BLM parcel is surrounded by one landowner, the sale, if approved, can be direct to that owner. If the BLM land borders multiple private land parcels, it becomes a competitive sale.

The county created a map in 2012 that identified small parcels of BLM land scattered throughout the county that are surrounded by private land, have no public access and are potential candidates to add to the private sector.

The BLM has not sold any land to the private sector since the map was created, Clementson said. There has been a lack of funding to pursue land disposal, but that funding was reauthorized in 2018, and is again available.

The BLM will work with the county to “try to get some disposals going in the future,” Clementson said.

Since the monument was created by President Bill Clinton in 2000, it has grown by 11,000 acres through the purchase of private land.

jmimiaga@the-journal.com

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