Two Pitkin County open space officials have made a point of exploring the Bureau of Land Management property that would become private property through a proposed land exchange and are hoping other interested residents will do the same.
Anne Rickenbaugh and Hawk Greenway are both members of the county's Open Space and Trails board of trustees, but Rickenbaugh stressed they're not acting in any official capacity in their effort to map out a route to visit the BLM land on the north flank of Mount Sopris, south of Carbondale. Using a map and GPS device, the two have hiked onto the property off Highway 133 at Nettle Creek Road. The route sticks entirely to public land, Rickenbaugh said, climbing from Forest Service property onto a BLM parcel that would be traded to Two Shoes Ranch owners Leslie and Abigail Wexner under the terms of the proposed swap. The BLM would acquire the privately owned Sutey Ranch parcel, north of Carbondale, which has been touted for its wildlife and recreational attributes.
The BLM is seeking written public comment on the proposed land trade; the deadline to offer input is June 20.
Rickenbaugh and Greenway both said they had not visited the property before last week's exploration, though Greenway, a pilot, had viewed it from the air.
What has been described by proponents of the trade, and even the BLM, as property that is difficult to access actually is not, said Rickenbaugh, who escorted an Aspen Times reporter onto the southern end of a strip of BLM land desired by the Wexners. Most of the route consisted of a well-trod trail. The strip makes up the bulk of the 1,269 acres that would be traded out of public ownership under the proposal.
"Despite everyone's assertion, there's quite a good trail up there, and it's actually a pretty nice walk," Rickenbaugh said, questioning the BLM's description of the acreage as "difficult for the public to access."
"My question for the BLM is, Have any of them ever been on this property?" Rickenbaugh said.
"I think it's unconscionable for local officials to accept the trade without ever being on the ground," Greenway said.
Open space officials have heard for years from hunters and some skiers that there is a public route onto the property as well as a network of existing trails, according to Dale Will, county open space director.
"Anyone can go there; it's just not well known," he said. "The lack of public knowledge seems to be making the land vulnerable to disposal."
Rickenbaugh and Greenway hope to make a written description of the route, a map and GPS coordinates available to anyone who wants them. Their efforts to erect cairns along the trail and hang ribbons from trees in some areas to help guide people have met with opposition, however.
On a return trip to the BLM property Wednesday in the company of a reporter, Rickenbaugh found most of the markers gone and encountered a hiker who asserted the activity was illegal and had been reported to a Forest Service compliance officer.
Such actions could potentially be interpreted as a violation of regulations related to making an improvement on forest lands without authorization or damaging a road or trail, according to an official with the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District of the White River National Forest.
While Rickenbaugh has walked part of the long strip of property that splits Two Shoes Ranch, Greenway said he hiked its entire length, to just shy of Prince Creek Road on the north end, and then returned to Highway 133.
"Three different watersheds, pockets of meadows, and it's all in the lap of Sopris," he said. "It's a tremendous piece of property."
The Open Space and Trails board voted in 2009 to recommend that Pitkin County commissioners reject the land swap. At that time, the Wexners' representatives were seeking county support with the intention of pursuing congressional approval of the trade. After lengthy negotiations, the Wexners broke off talks with the county in early 2011 and proposed the exchange to the BLM, letting the agency make the call administratively.
The trade had been under review by the agency until recently. In early May, the BLM announced it would open a public comment period, with an environmental assessment of the swap to follow. A final decision isn't expected until next year.
The county is preparing its comments to the BLM, though it's unclear whether the Open Space and Trails board and Board of County Commissioners will combine their input into a single letter or comment separately.
"Those conversations are unfolding," Will said.
The BLM hosted an open house in Carbondale on Thursday to answer the public's questions about the proposed land swap, and Pitkin County intends to send a letter to the agency asking that it conduct a similar session in Aspen.
"It baffles me that they wouldn't have an open house in the home county of the land to be privatized," Rickenbaugh said.
The BLM held the session in Carbondale because of the town's proximity to the lands in play, BLM spokesman David Boyd said. The agency will consider holding a second open house if the county requests it, he added.
The proposed land swap would put the 557-acre Sutey Ranch, adjacent to the Red Hill Special Recreation Area and located in Garfield County, under BLM ownership. The historical water rights from the ranch also would go to the BLM. The Sutey property was purchased by the Wexners with the trade in mind.
The BLM also would acquire 117 acres in Pitkin County along Prince Creek Road near the Crown, used by mountain bikers to access BLM roads and trails, plus receive a $1.1 million donation to develop a site-specific management plan for the newly acquired land and for its long-term management.
The BLM would give up 1,268 acres in Pitkin County adjacent to Two Shoes Ranch. It would also give up 195 acres on Horse Mountain, southwest of Eagle.
Go to www.blm.gov/co/crvfo for details about the proposal or to submit a comment.