Land exchanges serve the wealthy

By Erica Rosenberg

In 2017, the public lost 1,470 acres of wilderness-quality land at the base of Mount Sopris near Aspen, Colorado.

For decades, people had hiked and hunted on the Sopris land, yet the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) handed it over to Leslie Wexner, former CEO of Victoria’s Secret and other corporations, at his request. The so-called “equivalent terrain” he offered in return was no match for access to trails at the base of the 13,000-foot mountain.

This ill-considered trade reveals how land management agencies pander to wealthy interests, do not properly value public land, and restrict opportunities for public involvement. It’s an ongoing scandal in Colorado that receives little attention.

Since 2000, the BLM and the Forest Service have proposed over 150 land exchanges in Colorado. Last year alone, the agencies proposed to trade more than 4,500 acres of public lands, worth over $9 million, in three major Colorado land exchanges.

Land to be traded away includes precious riverfront, lands recommended for Wild and Scenic River designation, and hundreds of acres of prime hunting and recreation territory.

Public land exchanges can be a useful tool. Federal agencies use them to consolidate land holdings, improve public access, reduce management costs and protect watersheds.

By law, the trades must serve the public interest, and the land exchanged must be of equal value. The agencies are supposed to analyze, disclose and mitigate the impacts of relinquishing public lands in exchanges, and also solicit public input on whether a trade makes sense.

But here in Colorado — and elsewhere around the country — this management tool has been usurped by powerful players who aim to turn valuable public lands into private playgrounds. 

Often, the deals proposed sound good in terms of acreage. In the Valle Seco Exchange, for example, the San Juan National Forest in southern Colorado would trade 380 acres for 880 acres of prime game-wintering habitat. But the trade mostly benefits the landowners pushing the exchange.

Public lands for trade in the Valle Seco Exchange include river access, corridors considered for Wild and Scenic River designation, wetlands, sensitive species habitat, and significant cultural sites.

Alarmingly, the Valle Seco exchange also includes more than 175 acres of a Colorado Roadless Area, a designation meant to block development of high-quality land. The exchange would allow a neighboring landowner to consolidate those 380 acres with his 3,000-plus acre ranch, opening the door to development.

The Valle Seco Exchange follows a long-standing pattern. “Exchange facilitators,” people familiar with the land-acquisition wish lists of agencies, help private landowners buy lands the agencies want. The landowners then threaten to manage and develop those lands in ways that undermine their integrity.

The Valle Seco proponents did this by closing formerly open gates and threatening to fence the 880 acres for a domestic elk farm and hunting lodge. This is blackmail on the range. 

While catering to these private interests, the agencies suppress public scrutiny by refusing to share land appraisals and other documents with the public until afterthe public process has closed — or too late in the process to make it meaningful.

The proponents and their consultants have ready access to these documents, yet the public, which owns the land, does not. In Valle Seco, appraisals were completed in August 2020, but they weren’t released to the public until December 2021, just a few weeks before the scheduled decision date for the exchange. Advocates managed to pry the appraisals out of the agency only after submitting multiple Freedom of Information Act requests and taking legal action.

In another deal, the Blue Valley Exchange, the BLM also withheld drafts of the management agreements until just before releasing the final decision. This is hardly an open and fair public process. 

The federal government presents what are, in effect, done deals. Development plans and appraisals are undisclosed and comment periods hindered. By prioritizing the proponents’ desires over public interests and process, the land management agencies abdicate their responsibilities.

The result is that too many land trades are nothing less than a betrayal of the public trust as the public loses access to its land as well as the land itself.

Erica Rosenberg is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit that works to spur lively conversation about Western issues. She is on the board of Colorado Wild Public Lands, a nonprofit in the town of Basalt that monitors land exchanges around the state.

Old growth Ponderosa pine on public land that would be transferred to private ownership in proposed Valle Seco land trade, photo courtesy of Colorado Wild Public Lands

This column was published in the following newspapers:

04/24/2023 Explore Big Sky Big Sky MT
04/24/2023 Sierra Nevada Ally Carson City NV
04/24/2023 Rock Springs Rocket Miner Rock Springs WY
04/24/2023 Vail Daily Vail CO
04/24/2023 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
04/25/2023 Denver Post Denver CO
04/25/2023 Lake Powell Chronicle Page AZ
04/25/2023 Craig Daily Press Craig co
04/26/2023 Aspen Daily News Aspen CO
04/26/2023 Jackson Hole News & Guide Jackson Hole WY
04/26/2023 Kingman Daily Miner Kingman AZ
04/26/2023 Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City UT
04/26/2023 Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Grand Junction CO
04/26/2023 Park Record Park City UT
04/26/2023 Greeley Tribune Greeley CO
04/27/2023 Wallowa County Chieftain Enterprise OR
04/27/2023 Whitehall Ledger Whitehall MT
04/27/2023 Taos News Taos NM
04/27/2023 Moab Times Independent Moab UT
04/28/2023 Glenwood Post Independent Glenwood Springs CO
04/28/2023 Idaho Mountain Express Ketchum ID
04/29/2023 Yahoo sunnyvale ca
04/28/2023 St. George Spectrum St. George UT
04/26/2023 Coyote Gulch Denver CO
04/28/2023 Wenatchee World Wenatchee WA
05/01/2023 Fort Morgan Times Fort Morgan CO
05/01/2023 Four Points Press Garryowen MT
04/28/2023 Carlsbad Current-Argus Carsbad NM
05/03/2023 Sterling Journal-Advocate Sterling CO
04/27/2023 Pagosa Springs Sun Pagosa Springs CO
04/27/2023 Durango Telegraph Durango CO
05/05/2023 Aspen Times Aspen CO
05/08/2023 Del Norte Triplicate Crescent City CA
05/04/2023 Summit Daily frisco co
05/03/2023 Arvada Press Arvada Co
05/03/2023 Jeffco Transcript Jefferson County CO
05/03/2023 The Golden Transcript Golden Co
05/08/2023 Bandon Western World Bandon OR
05/04/2023 Sterling Journal-Advocate Sterling CO
05/05/2023 Las Vegas Sun Las Vegas NV
05/10/2023 Eastern Colorado Plainsman Limon CO
05/07/2023 Sky-Hi News Granby CO
06/05/2023 In These Times Rural Edition OR
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Tom S
11 months ago

Super-important article that should spur conservationists to demand more transparency and greater oversight of land exchanges. As we push for protection for our public lands, and better management, we should also be careful about what we trade, why, and to whom, so that we are sure to advance fairness and justice alongside conservation. Without that, all successes will be temporary.

Matt L
11 months ago

This is very interesting and of course, concerning to those of us who value public lands. I would have appreciated more information on how to reign in this practice of shielding appraisals and plans from pubic view. Is this a local BLM management issue? Is it common elsewhere or unique to Colorado.

Erica Rosenberg
11 months ago
Reply to  Matt L

Sorry for the late response. It is not limited to BLM nor is it limited to Colorado. It’s been a problem for decades with Forest Service and BLM exchanges throughout the West.

Colorado Wild Public Lands
11 months ago

Hi all, this is Graham with Colorado Wild Public Lands, the organization mentioned above that monitors these exchanges in Colorado. We’d be happy to chat and answer any questions if people would like to reach out to us at coloradowildpubliclands@gmail.com

Sherri Gronli
11 months ago

Great article!

Land Exchanges serve the wealthy — Writers on the Range – Coyote Gulch
11 months ago

[…] the link to read the article on the Writers on the Range website (Erica […]

langour
11 months ago

There are plenty of wealthy folks who pride themselves on protecting/saving the environment, perhaps the goal should be to enlist their help in buying/protecting/preserving key public lands when others try to buy them. Maybe when government land managers are given a proposal it should automatically become a slow, carefully considered and competitive process and go to the highest bidder. The public could also organize and raise its own money to try to control the land. The illogical alternative is for public lands to be kept immovable, unchanging and public in perpetuity, which if you actually realize the nature of the system, would permanently cripple public land management by preventing a large degree of the evolution of public land towards attaining better, more usable, open, protected/preserved and valuable land for US citizens.

keith allen
10 months ago

Great piece, thanks for the education.

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