Gunnison County land swap fires up trail advocates |

Gunnison County land swap fires up trail advocates

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN, Colorado – A Gunnison County land swap that affects plans to construct a bike trail between Carbondale and Crested Butte has raised brows in Pitkin County, and not just because local officials are anxious to see the trail project go forward as envisioned.

The land trade in Gunnison County shares some striking similarities with an altogether different swap on this side of the Elk Mountains, where landowners Leslie and Abigail Wexner have proposed exchanging the Sutey Ranch in Garfield County for Bureau of Land Management acreage adjacent to their Two Shoes Ranch near Carbondale, in Pitkin County.

Western Land Group is helping broker both deals, and both involve private landowners with local ties who are looking to acquire public lands to consolidate private holdings. In both cases, county support is considered important to securing congressional approval of the trade, and in both cases, the counties are seeking certain assurances as a condition of their support.

Gunnison County commissioners approved the trade in their jurisdiction, with conditions, last summer; in Pitkin County, negotiations with the landowners are ongoing.

Congressman John Salazar introduced a bill proposing the Gunnison County swap in April. Officials in Gunnison County were surprised to discover that conditions they wanted specified in the bill regarding the Carbondale-Crested Butte trail were not included in the language.

“We’re not pointing any fingers. We’re just trying to make sure that the bill represents what was agreed upon last June,” said Joellen Fonken, a member of the Gunnison County Trails Commission, an advisory group to county commissioners there.

Pitkin County recently weighed in, as well, after the Open Space and Trails Board directed open space Director Dale Will to write a letter to Gunnison County commissioners.

“We are in full support of your conditions, particularly those that protect the routes identified by the West Elk Scenic Byway Committee for the Crested Butte-to-Carbondale Trail,” Will wrote.

The bill lacks language to secure a desired trail easement and funding for a proposed Raggeds Mountains Trail that would serve non-motorized users, he noted, urging commissioners to insist on amendments to the bill.

Byway Committee chairman John Hoffman also wrote a letter, calling the congressional bill “inadequate” to secure the desired trails goals.

At a meeting of Gunnison County commissioners last week, officials were told details regarding the trails would be spelled out in a travel management plan to be drafted after the land swap is approved, according to Fonken.

She and other Gunnison County officials intend to try to get the trails language inserted into the bill itself while it’s still in committee.

“I’d like to see as much of it spelled out as possible,” she said. “The Gunnison Trails Commission wants to get as much in that bill, specifically, as possible.”

“We are still interested in those conditions, to the extent possible, actually being included in the bill,” confirmed Matthew Birnie, Gunnison County manager, who has been in contact with Salazar’s office.

“They are open to more specificity in the bill,” he said.

The Gunnison County land trade would fold six pieces of federal land, totaling about 1,846 acres, into Bear Ranch, located along Gunnison County Road 12 (Kebler Pass Road). The ranch, east of Paonia Reservoir, is owned by William Koch, who also owns the former Elk Mountain Lodge property south of Aspen in the Castle Creek Valley. He purchased the lodge in 2007 for $26.4 million and converted it into a single-family residence.

In exchange for the federal land, about 911 acres would go to the Curecanti National Recreation Area near Blue Mesa Reservoir in Gunnison County and about 80 acres would be conveyed to public ownership within Dinosaur National Monument in Utah.

Acre for acre, the swap does not appear to add up, but it does in terms of value, according to Birnie.

“For us, that’s some crucial real estate that’s important to Curecanti for people here,” he said.

Also lumped into the legislation is a separate deal involving the Darien Ranch near Marble. A piece of less than half an acre, the Lily Lake Trailhead, would become federal land in exchange for a permanent right-of-way on Rapid Creek for an intake and pipeline associated with a micro-hydroelectric plant the Dariens would like to put on their property.

A similar land deal for the Darien project was previously packaged with the proposed Wexner exchange, but was withdrawn early on, in the midst of growing controversy over the Wexner swap.

Gunnison County adopted a list of conditions under which it would support the land swap. They included an easement across Bear Ranch, adjacent to Kebler Pass Road, for a non-motorized trail, part of the Carbondale-Crested Butte Route, that would take bicycle traffic off the roadway. And, at Bear Ranch’s cost, a non-motorized trail paralleling the Raggeds Trail, which is open to motorized uses, is to be constructed. Its construction would require Forest Service review and approval, according to Fonken, but could eventually provide a single-track route linking Kebler Pass Road to the top of McClure Pass on Highway 133.

The Raggeds Mountain Trail would be a more primitive, challenging bike route than the wider gravel/paved trail that is envisioned to link Carbondale and Crested Butte roughly following the Highway 133/Kebler Pass route. Some sections of the latter trail have been built on the Crested Butte side, and the first stretch of a paved trail along Highway 133 south of Carbondale is expected to open in June.

In Pitkin County, commissioners are scheduled to meet today for a second time behind closed doors with Abigail Wexner and her representatives.

Commissioners have balked at endorsing the swap that was originally proposed – the 520-acre Sutey Ranch, located north of Carbondale and the Red Hill Recreation Area, in exchange for 1,268 acres of BLM property bordering the Wexners’ ranch.

The two sides have traded counterproposals, and the Wexners have attempted to sweeten the deal with various additional offers. So far, commissioners have been unwilling to endorse the exchange, and the Wexners have conceded the two sides may have to agree to disagree.

Western Land Group has offered to put various conditions into any congressional bill that is forthcoming in order to address issues raised by the county – restrictions on use of Sutey Ranch to protect its wildlife attributes, for example.

The Gunnison County deal points to the need to make sure the desired language is in the bill, contends Annie Rickenbaugh, a member of the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails Board, which has opposed the Wexner swap.

“We’re watching how this land exchange process [in Gunnison County] plays out,” she said.

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