After years of sometimes heated public debate about the Wexner family’s proposed midvalley land exchange, which would privatize 1,200 acres of federal land on the flanks of Mount Sopris, Pitkin County has heard little feedback on its proposed agreement to endorse the swap.
The county commissioners will hold a public hearing today at 10:30 a.m. before the board’s final vote on the agreement. If approved, as it is expected to be, the county’s endorsement would go to the Bureau of Land Management, which is evaluating the Wexners’ overall proposal.
“I thought there might be a lot of public feedback,” said County Manager Jon Peacock. “But it’s an issue that’s been out there and discussed for some time now. So maybe people have settled on this as a solution.”
The county has received just three letters regarding the swap agreement since its initial Dec. 19 approval, when Commissioner Michael Owsley was the lone dissenting vote on the five-member board.
The family has agreed to conserve additional land, provide wildlife protection and fund trails for the county, in exchange for the commissioners’ support of a proposal to give them BLM land on the flanks of Mount Sopris adjacent to the Wexner family’s Two Shoes Ranch property.
The county had withheld support for the federal land swap over the last two years, while negotiating in closed-door meetings with the Wexners’ representatives. It had already been endorsed by the Garfield County commissioners, Eagle County commissioners, Carbondale Town Council and various conservation groups.
To the BLM, the Wexners are offering the 557-acre Sutey Ranch, north of Carbondale and adjacent to the Red Hill Recreation Area, in exchange for the Sopris acreage.
The BLM also would get a 112-acre parcel along Prince Creek Road allowing mountain bikers access to “the Crown” recreation area.
Abigail and Leslie Wexner, owner of Limited Brands, also are offering $1.1 million to the BLM to help manage the properties.
The land the Wexners are seeking splits their existing 3,944-acre Two Shoes property. The swap would make it one contiguous swath of private, Wexner-owned land below Sopris — totaling more than 8 square miles.
Pitkin County’s agreement calls for the Wexners to place permanent conservation easements on their new property and a portion of the land they would acquire, in an area known as “Potato Bill,” which state wildlife officials have identified as important winter range for deer, elk and big horn sheep. The easements would be managed by the Aspen Valley Land Trust and conserve the land in perpetuity.
Pitkin County Open Space and Trails board member Anne Rickenbaugh, writing as a citizen and not on behalf of her board, voiced concern with the effectiveness of the conservation easements in one of the three letters to the commissioners. She called for the board to make the easements stricter to ensure wildlife protections on the properties after they go into private hands.
She noted the easements lack restrictions on road or trail building on the property, and of their lack on grazing, which she argues are weaker than the current BLM management rules. It also allows some use of off-road vehicles.
“[T]he property should be managed more like a nature preserve than a ranch,” Rickenbaugh wrote.
Rickenbaugh argued for the commissioners to put more oversight into the easements to curb road and trail construction, hunting and other activity that might disturb wildlife.
“The people and conditions influencing this property will change over time,” she wrote, “so future management of the sensitive Potato Bill drainage should not only be equally stringent as existing management, but have the flexibility to adapt to future environmental and human influences.”
The open space and trails board did not take a position on the county agreement, which resulted from closed-door negotiations between the Wexners’ representatives and the county commissioners. The open space board had opposed previous iterations of the swap.
“No matter where you stand on this particular agreement, I think we all agree that privatizing public land is something that should be very solemn and rarely considered,” county open space director Dale Will said in an interview.
Additionally, as part of the county agreement, the Wexners agreed to give up development rights for 10 homes along Highway 133 and Prince Creek Road, totaling 50,000 square feet of residential construction. They also pledge to move an adjacent building site of an indoor horse-riding arena to a less visually prominent site.
Finally, they pledged $700,000 to Pitkin County for property acquisitions and trail construction to improve public access to biking and hiking trails on public lands in the area. The county hopes to create a mile-long trail parallel to Prince Creek road that would access the Crown.
Two opponents of the agreement wrote complaining that the county has been swayed by the Wexners’ wealth.
“This whole deal stinks,” wrote Paul Andersen of Carbondale. “Commissioner Owsley is the only one among you with any foresight and deep seated principles. The rest of you would sell your mother if the price was right.”
Anderson compared the mid-elevation ecosystem and recreational value of the to-be-privatized BLM land to the Droste family ranch, which upper valley governments purchased for $17 million to put in public hands and turned into Sky Mountain Park.
Redstone resident Bill Jochems also wrote in to commend Owsley for his opposition to the influence of billionaires like the Wexners and Bill Koch, who also has proposed a federal land swap near Paonia.
“I think it is necessary to speak out against the establishment of the Wexner and Koch principalities, especially because they are inevitable,” Jochems wrote.