A proposed land exchange between wealthy property owners near Pagosa Springs and the U.S. Forest Service seems like a foregone conclusion, according to nearly 3,000 people who submitted public comment about the proposed land swap.
“The South San Juan Wilderness is among Colorado’s most pristine areas,” reads a letter of opposition. “It would be a betrayal now to turn around and give away these wilderness-quality public lands just because a billionaire wants them.”
In November, the Forest Service announced it was considering swapping 472 acres of national forest lands near Wolf Creek Pass and along the Blanco River near the South San Juan Wilderness, for about 900 acres of private land around Chromo that is surrounded by national forest.
The swap would effectively add to the property owned by Kelcy Warren, CEO of Energy Transfer Partners, the corporation behind the Dakota Access Pipeline, who owns Boot Jack Ranch, as well as several other ranches in the areas in question.
Calls to the Boot Jack Ranch were not returned this week, and the property owners have not yet made public their intentions should they acquire the public lands. The Forest Service has said the owners intend to expand their ranches and private recreational opportunities.
During a public comment period late last year, about 2,900 people individually signed and submitted a prompt letter airing the same concerns about the potential loss of wilderness areas should the land exchange – called “Valle Seco” – go through.
“It violates the public’s trust to reverse course and privatize this public resource,” the letter reads.
Becca Smith, the Forest Service’s land and minerals specialist, said the other 100 or so comments were a mixed bag of support and opposition for the exchange.
The Forest Service will take the coming weeks to review and analyze issues and concerns raised in public comments, Smith said, and aims to release in April a draft environmental assessment that would give the agency’s recommendation whether to approve the exchange.
“The purpose of scoping is to solicit public input so that a thorough environmental analysis can be prepared and so that the forest supervisor can make an informed decision,” she said.
Smith said the Forest Service does not take a position on projects during the analysis process. Some critics, however, say recent messaging indicates the Forest Service is already highly in favor of the exchange.
San Juan National Forest Supervisor Kara Chadwick, who will ultimately make the decision about the exchange, recently wrote in an op-ed to The Durango Herald about all the supposed positive benefits should the swap be approved, claiming it would save habitat for big game.
“The (land exchange) would secure important winter rangeland, a crucial migration corridor for elk and mule deer and additional public access for motorized use in the Valle Seco area,” Chadwick wrote.
Jimbo Buickerood with the San Juan Citizens Alliance said Chadwick’s letter, as well as a “frequently asked questions” page on the Forest Service’s website about the land exchange, shows the agency is slanting the narrative in favor of the project, despite its claims it does not take positions.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “To me, this all seems like a billionaire’s blackmail scheme.”
Esther Godson, a spokeswoman for the Forest Service, said Chadwick’s letter and the FAQ page were attempts from the agency to reiterate why the land exchange is being considered. She said land exchanges can be carried through only if they are proved to have public benefit.
“Based on information known to date, the benefit of the critical winter range and habitat corridor that would be acquired appears to equal or exceed the resource values of the federal lands that would be conveyed,” Godson said.
However, it appears the top wildlife management agency in the state – Colorado Parks and Wildlife – isn’t completely sure of the net gain to wildlife should the land exchange go through.
In a letter to the Forest Service dated Dec. 13, CPW Assistant Director for Parks, Wildlife and Lands Doug Vilsack wrote, “Further analysis is required to evaluate trade-offs between the ‘gains’ for big-game conservation represented by the acquisition of the Valle Seco parcel, as compared to the potential public benefit compromises inherent in the loss of the lands slated for disposal.”
Vilsack wrote that the exchange would end up costing 176 acres of land within a designated roadless area, prime habitat for big game.
“The change in land ownership would also revoke protective management provisions and could result in the loss or degradation of scenic, environmental, recreational and cultural qualities (on roadless) lands,” he wrote.
Godson wrote, “Thorough analysis, scoping and public input are required before a final determination on the proposal can be made.”
“This is where the proposal is currently – acquiring public input and conducting quality analysis,” she said.
The Forest Service will offer the opportunity for more public comment after the draft analysis is released this spring.