Land swap would change the face of Vail |

Land swap would change the face of Vail

Cliff Thompson

The ski company wants up to 3 acres near the Vista Bahn to develop its $75 million Vail Front Door project. It is offering the Forest Service 136 acres on Vail Mountain, on South Game Creek near the Minturn Mile, and another 160 acres at Mud Springs, south of Arrowhead.

Both parcels were widely viewed as developable. The Game Creek property, for example, often has been eyed as a potential small base facility for a lift connecting Minturn to Vail Mountain.

“The exchange has to be balanced on a value-for-value basis,” said Howard Kahlow, lands specialist for the Forest Service, adding that Vail Resorts has requested between 2 and 3 acres.

Realtor and Vail Town Councilman Rod Slifer says it’s difficult to determine the value of the land at the Front Door because its value depends on the zoning and other factors.

“It depends on what you’re allowed to do with the land,” he said.

Last spring, Vail Resorts unveiled redevelopment plans for the land at the head of Bridge Street. The plans included underground parking, loading docks, and a new spa and club, as well as 16 luxury slopeside townhomes.

One landowner, Oran Palmateer, who has lived near the Game Creek parcel north of MInturn for 22 years, said he believes ultimately it’s a good trade.

“My gut reaction is that it will benefit the public,” he said.

The parcel proposed for trade is approximately 3 miles from his house.

The Forest Service prefers to remove private land surrounded by Forest Service land because those inholdings can be developed and the Forest Service is obligated to provide reasonable access.

“The key is eliminating the inholdings,” Kahlow said. “They could have impacts outside the parcel.”

But land swaps aren’t without critics or criticism. An attorney for a Seattle-based land-trade watchdog group, Western Land Exchange Project, has criticized the exchange process used by the Forest Service and other federal agencies.

“By the time these things are released to the public for comment, the Forest Service has already decided to do it,” said Chris Krupp. “Their thumb is already on the scale.”

Krupp said appraisals are often conducted by third parties paid by the land exchange proponent.

Across the 400,000-acre Holy Cross District of the 2.2 million-acre White River National Forest, there are nearly 7,000 acres of inholdings, Kahlow said. Most predate creation of national forests.

“We’ve had exchange authority since the 1920’s,” said Steve Rinella, land adjustment leader for the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region of the Forest Service. “We were left with unusual and inconvenient land patterns from the Homestead and mining acts that gave patents to individuals.”

He estimated the inholding acreage in Colorado is in the “hundreds of thousands of acres.”

The L-shaped South Game Creek parcel is covered with lodgepole pines; the Mud Springs parcel has open meadows and agricultural lands with aspen and some conifers.

Access to that parcel is one of the issues that needs to be worked out, Kahlow said, as Arrowhead is a gated community with restricted access.

The land swap is being facilitated by Western Land Group, which specializes in such trades.

A second land swap has been proposed in West Lake Creek by part-time resident and computer-networking magnate Robert Levine, a Forbes 400 notable. He has proposed acquiring 119 acres of Forest Service property near his 35,000-square-foot home near the trailhead to Baryetta Cabin, south of Edwards. In return proposes giving the Forest Service 301 acres in several parcels, one being a 122-acre inholding just south of the Baryetta Cabin trailhead. Other parcels include 31 acres at Pitkin lake northeast of Vail and 148 acres of mining claims southeast of Aspen near Independence Pass. Levine also used Western Land Group to arrange the properties for the exchange.

Krupp has complemented Levine for installing a development-preventing conservation easement on the 119 acres of land he aims to acquire.

“Joe Six Pack’ can’t do exchanges

If you’ve got some land you’d like to exchange for acreage owned by the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management, you’ll need to check your bank account first.

If you don’t have deep pockets or measure the square footage of your home in acres, land exchanges aren’t for you.

“Messing with a half-acre isn’t very cost-effective,” says Steve Rinella, land adjustment leader for the Rocky Mountain Region of the Forest Service. “We aren’t going to spend what money we have doing small exchanges. It’s not cost-effective. We’re going to go where we get the most bang for the buck.”

“It’s very complicated and time consuming,” adds Howard Kahlow, lands specialist with the Holy Cross Ranger District of the White River National Forest. “If you were purchasing land you wouldn’t hire an archaeologist, biologist or Western Land Group to shepherd the process.”

Land swap watchdog Chris Krupp with the Western Land Exchange Project says only the most well-heeled are able to do them.

“These (exchanges) are very expensive to process,” he says. “That’s why Joe Six Pack can’t do an exchange.”

Western Land Group’s Adam Poe, whose organizaion arranges land trades, says smaller stakeholders can engage in land trades, but typically have to pool their efforts.

“For the smaller guy who doesn’t have a portfolio of lands that the U.S. might want, it’s tough for them,” he says.

Cliff Thompson can be reached at 949-0555 ext 450 or

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