In late 2016, the powers that be at the White River National Forest determined that two sizable parcels of primo property adjacent to Crown Mountain Park in El Jebel — one 40 acres, the other 30 acres — were ripe for “disposal.”
Outcry from the public was vehemently opposed to the idea of transferring that WRNF land — which includes significant access to the Roaring Fork River — from the relative predictability of the public domain to the god-knows-what of the private sector.
The process of disposing of that property — known as the El Jebel Administrative Parcel — has languished on the U.S. Forest Service’s bureaucratic back burner for the last couple years, much to the relief of people who use that property to hike, fish and walk their dogs.
But a rider penned by Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet that was attached to the 2018 Farm Bill has opened up a new avenue for the Forest Service to dispose of land it deems as “no longer having national forest character” — which is how the El Jebel Administrative Parcel is classified.
Though that might sound ominous to public lands devotees, there is a potential silver lining.
According to Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor of the WRNF, the Forest Service is now able to entertain the process of leasing land legally deemed disposable to local governmental entities for purposes that fulfill an as-yet-codified definition of “community good.”
In turn, the Forest Service can negotiate details of those leases that would, instead of money, provide direct in-kind benefit to the perpetually cash-strapped agency, which manages a large percentage of land in the Roaring Fork Valley.
“An appraiser will compare the lease value of, say, a 50-year lease on a parcel of our land and, instead of taking cash in monthly or yearly payments, we can say to a local governmental agency, ‘Would you build us some housing units for our employees or build us a new office,’ or we can go so far as to say, ‘Build us a new campground,’” Fitzwilliams said. “It’s pretty wide open.”
And that new reality has reinvigorated internal discussions about the disposition of the El Jebel Administrative Parcel that have lay fairly dormant for the last three years.
The Forest Service bought the El Jebel Administrative Parcel, then 217 acres, in 1961 from Kelley and Eva Cerise. It was utilized as one of the major coniferous and seedling nurseries in the Mountain Time Zone, producing thousands of lodgepole pines, ponderosa pines and blue spruce, which were shipped throughout the country to replenish stock diminished by wildfire or timbering operations.
In 1986, the tree farm component of the property (not to be confused with the Tree Farm development across Highway 82 from Whole Foods) was moved to Nebraska. Hay continued to be grown on the El Jebel property for a few more years. In 1994, the Forest Service traded 132 acres to Eagle County. Much of that land became Crown Mountain Park.
The remaining acreage of the parcel lost its official land-use stature, becoming officially an “administrative site” — pretty much the lowest form of life in the Forest Service’s management hierarchy. Once a parcel is deemed an administrative site, the Forest Service is allowed by law to sell it and keep the proceeds for other local uses.
The two administrative parcels in El Jebel are distinct.
The Upper Parcel — about 30 acres — consists of three sections. Nine acres, flat as a pancake, lie between a series of buildings, Valley Road and Crown Mountain Park. A central section — about four acres — consists of some housing made available to two permanent and three seasonal Forest Service employees. Drop down 10 vertical feet and you find another parcel — about 17 acres — that was once a hay meadow. It’s now home to some abandoned equipment.
The Lower Parcel is 40 acres of pure riparian splendor that provide access to the public, via a series of three non-system trails, to the banks of the Roaring Fork River.
Fitzwilliams is quick to stress that the 40-acre parcel next to the river is not going to get developed under any scenario.
“The lower parcel will not be part of any development,” he said. “If we get that far, we will either keep it or convey it to an entity that will preserve it or maybe put in a conservation easement.”
The 30-acre upper parcel is a different story. Or at least could be.
“We identified those parcels a while back as potential properties to dispose of, sell or otherwise get rid of, so we started working on the environmental decision documents,” Fitzwilliams said. “To be frank, we set it on the side for a little bit. Now, because of the new Farm Bill, we are reemphasizing it and committed to finishing the documents and making a final decision.
“Senator Bennet was a major driving force behind what originally had been a stand-alone bill called the Forest Service Flexible Partnership Act,” Fitzwilliams continued. “He was eventually able to roll it into the Farm Bill passed last December. What this does is give the Forest Service some very unique authority in these administrative parcels that we have identified. We’ve had the authority since 2005 to keep proceeds from the sale of administrative parcels, to bring back into our facilities program. This takes those same parcels and gives us unique authority to lease these lands in kind of an enhanced-use leasing authority.”
Fitzwilliams said the Department of Defense has had a similar program for 25 or 30 years.
“If we sell the property outright, which is still an option, we get to keep the money,” he said. “If we lease the property for cash, that money goes to the federal treasury. So there’s not much inspiration for me to do that. This gives us another option. This gives us new authority we’ve never had before. One of the provisions is that it really pushes us to work with local communities. In fact, a local community has the right of first refusal to make us an offer. Senator Bennet really designed this to allow the Forest Service to get involved with local community housing issues.
“The Forest Service has problems with housing our employees,” Fitzwilliams continued. “We have no capital funds for fixing up old buildings or offices. Communities need housing. This bill helps us to partner and say for instance, ‘OK Eagle County Housing Authority, we have 30 acres in El Jebel. Instead of paying us and buying it outright, what would you offer us?’ That’s what we’ve really been working on the last year.”
Because the WRNF owns many administrative parcels throughout its 2.3-million-acre domain, the new ability to lease property to local communities has justified the establishment of a new position that will focus primarily on real estate issues.
Anna Bengtson is the WRNF’s new realty and land conveyance specialist. She took up her new duties in August.
“We’ve been working on internally putting together a draft document that analyzes different alternatives for this property if we were to convey it out of national forest system,” she said. “Where we are right now is with me on board picking that back up, looking through it, starting to finalize the draft document that would incorporate the new leasing authority. Local communities are aware of this new leasing authority, so interest kind of bubbled back up to the surface. As we internally go through this draft document, we have some internal review to do before the draft is finalized and goes out for public comment.”
According to Fitzwilliams, implementation policies for the leasing option still need to be worked out at the federal level. Once the operational blueprint makes its way from Washington, D.C., to Glenwood Springs, Fitzwilliams and Bengtson can begin entertaining proposals from local governmental entities.
“We’re in a weird position,” Fitzwilliams said. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm around this new leasing authority, but we have to make a decision to actually sell the property or lease it. I don’t want to get the cart too far in front of the horse. Certainly it has been our proposal to dispose of this property some way or another. But I want to respect the process. I don’t want to entertain all these proposals when I haven’t made a decision yet. We’ll get that part done, then we’ll work with the counties and communities and ask what they would like to do, if we get that far.”
The options are many.
“Word got out fairly quickly when the legislation passed,” Fitzwilliams said. “Senator Bennet sent out a press release. People have been calling us. What we’ve told Eagle County, Crown Mountain Park, Pitkin County and the town of Basalt is, ‘Hey, this is out there. We don’t know exactly how we can implement it yet, but go ahead and start thinking about alternatives, proposals, creative solutions to some of your problems that maybe we could help with.’ They’re off doing that, but we don’t quite have the go-ahead to implement it yet. So we’re not quite aligned, but I think it’s safe for them to look at these properties for housing solutions.
“Cash from selling the properties outright is always nice, but it’s a one-time thing,” he continued. “When we’re thinking about different scenarios for the facilities we need, we have a parcel we can sell, we get the money and then we have to go through all the government contracting and design. We’re not the most efficient builder of facilities. Costs are quite a bit more. We don’t do it that often, so it’s time consuming. With leasing authority, we say to a local governmental partner, with this chunk of 20 acres, you can put in 100 housing units or whatever you want, in exchange for that, build us a new office and a bunkhouse and give us three houses. That way, we don’t get involved in building or contracting. There are people much more adept at that. So, we get what we need, and the community gets affordable housing.”
Gary Tennenbaum, director of Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, said of the administrative parcel, “We have been watching the process, but haven’t heard anything in a while on where it is at.”
Added Diane H. Mauriello, manager of Eagle County Open Space, “[We are] familiar with the parcels that are adjacent to Crown Mountain Park and discussed the parcels with the USFS some time ago. The USFS was awaiting the results of a report or study. The Eagle County Open Space program welcomes the opportunity to work with the USFS.”
As for Crown Mountain Park pursuing the opportunity to perhaps lease some of the El Jebel Administrative Parcel, executive director Rebecca Wagner said, “We are definitely interested in owning, not leasing, the nine acres directly next to the volleyball courts. We have expressed interest in the property to the Forest Service and Eagle County. They are keeping us in the loop and at the table.”
According to Bengtson, the draft environmental analysis for the El Jebel administrative parcel should be done this winter, with the final document ready by late spring or early summer.