Land trust supports latest Sutey Ranch land swap proposal |

Land trust supports latest Sutey Ranch land swap proposal

Guest Commentary
Aspen Valley Land Trust
board of directors and staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

Aspen Valley Land Trust has worked with the properties involved in the Two Shoes Ranch/Sutey Ranch land exchange for many years and strongly supported the original exchange proposal. The most recent proposal retains the potential public recreation opportunities on Sutey Ranch and provides for the conservation of even more land and wildlife habitat. We strongly urge Pitkin County commissioners to enthusiastically support the exchange and seize the opportunity to conserve more than 2,000 acres at no cost to the public.

The proposal:

• Ownership of 1,268 acres now owned by BLM would be transferred to the Two Shoes Ranch;

• Ownership of the 520-acre Sutey Ranch now owned by Two Shoes would be transferred to BLM;

• All of the current BLM and Sutey Ranch land would be permanently conserved;

• 270 acres of the current Two Shoes Ranch would be permanently conserved;

• BLM would receive $100,000 to develop a management plan for Sutey Ranch;

• BLM would receive a $1 million endowment to manage Sutey Ranch;

• 75,000 square feet of approved Pitkin County development rights (10 home sites and some agricultural buildings) would be eliminated;

• Illegal mountain bike trail up Prince Creek road would be legitimatized if Pitkin County acquires the adjacent private land, and;

• $200,000 would be provided for historic preservation projects in Redstone and Emma.

Sutey Ranch: This exchange would put AVLT’s highest priority parcel into public ownership and open it to seasonal public use while protecting the critical winter wildlife habitat. Contrary to published statements by Pitkin County, AVLT worked for more than four years without success to secure the conservation of the 520-acre Sutey Ranch. The high cost and Sutey family issues were prohibitive and the ranch went on the market for development. It was a true gift when Two Shoes Ranch agreed to buy the Sutey Ranch and include it in a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land exchange. The Sutey Ranch is unique in our area for its pristine condition, natural beauty, quality of habitat, proximity to popular public trails, location among high-value, fast-growing suburban development, amount of water, and physical seclusion from roads or development. By putting the Sutey Ranch into public ownership, all of those characteristics will be preserved. In addition, Carbondale’s Red Hill recreation area could be expanded to include seasonal public access on Sutey Ranch.

Two Shoes Ranch: Since 1997, AVLT has worked to conserve the Two Shoes Ranch and 1,067 acres are under permanent conservation easement. This exchange would take 270 additional acres of the ranch plus 1,268 acres of BLM land and add it to the already conserved lands, creating a permanent 2,600-acre wildlife “safe zone.” Like the Sutey Ranch, the BLM parcel contains important wildlife habitat. The rugged, dry parcel provides critical winter habitat for major elk and deer herds and the Crystal River’s bighorn sheep herd.

Misconceptions: First, concerns have been expressed by Pitkin County about the process of Congressional land exchanges and the inequities of the amount of acres involved in the proposed exchange. Since 1995, land in Pitkin County has been involved in 13 federal land exchanges. Two of those were made by Congressional action and seven involved loss of public land in other counties. In each exchange Pitkin County gained federal land, and those exchanges resulted in more than 9 percent of all private land in Pitkin County being converted to federal ownership. If the 1,268-acre BLM parcel is converted to private conserved land, Pitkin County will lose .002 percent (two one-thousandths of one percent) of the federal land holdings in the county, but conservation easement holdings in Pitkin County will increase by more than 10 percent, again at no public cost.

Second, Pitkin County proposals and reviews have stated that the Sutey Ranch can be acquired for the public by other means. The owner of Two Shoes paid $6.5 million to buy Sutey Ranch. The sources of public funding available to land trusts and open space programs for such projects include Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW), and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). For a single project the maximum amount of funding that one agency will provide is about $1 million. Grant restrictions generally stipulate that GOCO and DOW funding cannot be used for the same project, meaning that a maximum of $2 million could be raised from grants for the purchase of Sutey Ranch. The additional $4.5 million would have to come from other entities such as Garfield County and the town of Carbondale, in addition to the cost of managing the land.

Another funding source is the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). A Pitkin County memo dated Feb. 24, 2010, states that the BLM could use LWCF money to acquire the Sutey Ranch and not have to dispose of any land. The proposed 2011 federal budget increases the LWCF funding to levels not seen since 2002, when LWCF received $677 million. The BLM got almost $50 million of that total, or about $1 million per state. Even with the maximum amount of all available grants, the only way to purchase the Sutey Ranch for public benefit is to raise millions of dollars from local governments and private individuals. AVLT determined that this approach was unrealistic.

Finally, there has been concern that the owner of Two Shoes would unfairly benefit financially from the exchange because acquisition of the BLM parcel would add extraordinary value to the combined, larger ranch. The federal appraisal process, which was used in each of the 13 land exchanges involving Pitkin County lands, requires that the BLM parcel be appraised as though it has legal or physical access even though the only practical physical public access is from high on Mount Sopris. The federal appraisal process also requires that the parcel be appraised at full development value, which in this case would be 36 35-acre parcels, even though, under the terms of this exchange, all development is prohibited. In addition to those factors, two MAIA-licensed appraisers, both of whom are used by AVLT and Pitkin County to value land transactions, have explored the assemblage value of adding the BLM parcel to the Two Shoes Ranch; independently, both found that there would not be significant financial benefit to Two Shoes Ranch. The bottom line in the federal appraisal process is that the land the federal government acquires must be equal to or worth more than the value of the land it is giving up. If the BLM parcel appraises for more than the Sutey Ranch, Two Shoes Ranch will be required to pay the difference.

What if there is no land exchange? On the BLM parcel, probably nothing will change. The grazing lease on the land has been allocated to Two Shoes Ranch for many decades. It would still be largely without public access and would not be permanently conserved, but the wildlife habitat would remain intact. Eventually, the owner and BLM could execute an administrative exchange or, more likely, the BLM could place the land on its disposal list and sell it to Two Shoes, which could develop the property if it desired. The Sutey Ranch would presumably again be put up for sale. The highest and best use of that land is probably as a large-lot subdivision of around 50 lots. The critical winter habitat would be lost, as would public access opportunities.

The question of whether or not to support the proposed land exchange is very simple: to permanently conserve 2,058 acres and expand the Red Hill recreation area, or not.

AVLT encourages Pitkin County to join other local governments, area residents and environmental organizations in support of this unusual conservation opportunity.

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