Colorado Wild Public Lands (COWPL), based in Basalt, originated in 2014 in direct response to a controversial land swap known as the Sutey Ranch Land Exchange. Now complete, the deal saw the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) trade 1,369 acres south of Carbondale and 201 acres southwest of Eagle to Two Shoes Ranch, owned by Leslie Wexner, and Lady Belle Partnership LLLP.
In exchange, the public gained the 557-acre Sutey Ranch parcel adjoining the Red Hill Special Recreation Area, 112 acres along Prince Creek Road, $100,000 toward developing a management plan and $1 million for long-term management of the acquired land. Additionally, all lands that became private are now protected by a conservation easement.
The BLM’s description of this exchange explains that “land exchanges are conducted on a value-for-value, not acre-for-acre, basis,” due to “location and development potential.” With close to half of all land in the West being public, and over 150 land exchanges in Colorado since 2000, COWPL posits itself as a staunch defender of the public interest.
The nature of the exchange garnered national attention, and the founders of COWPL began to study “a whole system of public land exchanges that happen in Colorado that are not swept under the rug, per se, but are outside of the public notice,” said COWPL Community Engagement Director Graham Ward. “[COWPL] formed in an effort to expand public involvement in those processes and awareness of them in general.”
COWPL filed an appeal of the Sutey Ranch Land Exchange’s approval in December 2014, asserting that the appraisals for the exchange did not “accurately reflect the values of the lands in the exchange and that the appraisals were commissioned by the proponents and beneficiaries of the exchange, not the BLM.” COWPL had filed an action under the Freedom of Information Act to have the appraisals released to the public prior to the final decision.
In April 2021, COWPL followed up with a Motion to Reconsider, challenging whether the BLM followed the rules and acted in the public interest.
COWPL Project Coordinator Suzanne Jackson says that their efforts did result in the public receiving more benefits, but “the organization is still not in favor of that type of exchange,” calling it “apples to oranges” trading wild land for recreation.
In the southwestern region of Colorado, near Pagosa Springs, COWPL is now challenging a land exchange in the San Juan National Forest dubbed the Valle Seco Land Exchange.
The proposal trades one private 880-acre parcel for nine federal parcels that total 380 acres and include roadless areas, wetlands and dispersed camping. The exchange was proposed by Kelcy Warren, owner of Bootjack Ranch LLC and CEO of Energy Transfer Partners. Warren would receive three of the federal parcels. Other parcels would go to David Skidmore and Cynthia Sites and David Lindner Trust and Dynasty Trust, parties that, COWPL notes, “do not appear to be giving any land themselves.”
A Durango Herald op-ed penned by Forest Supervisor Kara Chadwick says the exchange “would secure important winter rangeland, a crucial corridor for elk and mule deer and additional public access for motorized use in the Valle Seco area.” Chadwick continues, “Forest Service has been discussing potential land exchanges with former and current owners of the 880-acre private inholding in the Valle Seco area since the 1980s.”
Attempts through the Freedom of Information Act to acquire unredacted appraisals of the lands have so far been unsuccessful. “We’ve been trying to get our hands on the appraisals of those exchanges for a long time,” said Ward. He believes that information should be made available to the public, “the actual owners” of the parcels in question.
COWPL has filed objections and requests for clarification to the Draft Decision Notice, Finding of No Significant Impact and the Final Environmental Assessment (released in September 2021). COWPL also points out the absence of public engagement events, even virtual meetings, which have been typical of past exchanges. The Objection Hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 14, online.
“Agencies are supposed to make sure that the values of the lands are equal or better for the public,” states the COWPL website. “That doesn’t always happen. That’s when we step in.” The organization includes seven board members, two staffers and over 150-member volunteers. To learn more, stay updated and donate, visit www.coloradowildpubliclands.org