Western Colorado land swap runs into opposition | SkyHiNews.com

Western Colorado land swap runs into opposition

GRAND JUNCTION – A land swap involving one of the richest men in the world and a congressman who enjoys hunting on the ranch has stirred up local controversy and riled a national land-exchange watchdog group.

U.S. Rep. John Salazar introduced a bill in April that would give energy magnate Bill Koch just over 1,840 acres of Bureau of Land Management land and a 3-acre sliver of Forest Service land in Gunnison County for Koch giving the National Park Service 991 acres in Dinosaur National Monument and the Curecanti National Recreation Area.

The trade was initiated more than two years ago by Koch – the world’s 316th richest man, according to Forbes, and Salazar’s most generous campaign contributor.

A representative of Salazar’s said the swap was initiated by Gunnison County officials and that it has garnered support from local officials as well as national politicians and agencies. The National Park Service supports the swap because it will ensure protection of two valuable pieces of land that otherwise could be developed. U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall of Colorado have filed a companion measure in the Senate.

But others, including some staffers at the Bureau of Land Management, worry that Koch will be getting land with much higher value because of its potential for energy development. They also complain that there was very little opportunity for public input and scrutiny of the deal. There were no public hearings specifically devoted to gathering public comment, as there are with most proposed government land swaps.

“I’m not very pleased about it. It doesn’t look like a very good deal for me or other people in this area,” said Tony Prendergast, a former Forest Service ranger. He said good hunting land will be taken out of the public domain and that a conservation easement that is to be part of the trade wouldn’t prevent Koch from drilling there.

That kind of talk brings Koch representative Brad Goldstein to shouting anger.

“It’s absurd,” Goldstein said of criticism that the swap would not benefit the public and of allegations the matter purposefully avoided adequate public scrutiny. “They are trying to twist and distort this.”

At the root of the controversy is the fact that the swap is being carried out with legislation rather than through an administrative process as most of the land swaps in the country are done.

That means there is no environmental review process before the trade takes place: There are no formal public hearings that would put a spotlight on the trade rather than making it just another item on a county commission’s agenda.

That is one reason a national watchdog group devoted to overhauling the way the government trades public land is looking askance.

The Western Lands Project in Seattle is questioning the transparency and is troubled that Koch included land in two states (Colorado and Utah) and land involving two federal management agencies. Those factors guarantee the trade must be done through legislation.

“The thing that bothers me about this bill – it appears to me this whole thing was engineered to keep it out of the normal public process. All of our questions could have been answered if this hadn’t been done legislatively,” Western Lands director Janine Blaeloch said.

Salazar spokesman Eric Wortman contends questions have been answered. And he pointed out that the proposal, the Central Rockies Land Exchange and National Park System Enhancement Act of 2010, has a long way to go before it can be passed.

Wortman said his boss introduced the bill only after he was approached by Gunnison County officials to do so.

Gunnison officials supported the effort after Koch’s representatives came to town to present the potential trade. Having a visitor center along Blue Mesa Reservoir, as the Park Service plans if the swap goes through, would boost tourism in that county.

Goldstein said the public has already had plenty of opportunity to comment while the issue was on the agendas of the Gunnison County commissioners, the Gunnison City Council and Gunnison Trails Commission.

About 100 land trades have been carried out in Western states since 2003. Fewer than 20 percent of those have been done through legislation, which is not the favored method of land managers.

“We can offer our input on these, but at the end of the day we do what Congress tells us,” said Steve Renal, a lands program specialist with the Forest Service.

Read more of this story at http://www.denverpost.com/ci_15800378.

Nancy Lofholm: 970-256-1957 or nlofholm@denverpost.com

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