March 28, 2017

BLM land swap with billionaire final after appeal rejected

Grand Juntion Sentinel
Tuesday, March 28, 2017
By Dennis Webb

An Ohio billionaire and the Bureau of Land Management on Monday completed a complex western Colorado land swap after opponents lost an appeal challenging the deal.

The Interior Board of Land Appeals rejected arguments by a group called Colorado Wild Public Lands, including the group’s contention that the BLM grossly undervalued the acreage it was giving up.

Under the exchange, Leslie Wexner and his wife, Abigail, gained nearly 1,300 acres at the base of Mount Sopris south of Carbondale, consolidating their ranch holdings there.

The BLM said that land was largely inaccessible to the public. In return, the public received about 670 acres the agency says has high recreational value in the Carbondale area. These include 112 acres in Prince Creek south of Carbondale, providing legal access to trails in a popular mountain biking area, and the 557-acre Sutey Ranch north of Carbondale, which contains big-game winter habitat.

The Wexners committed to donate 235 acres of the Sutey property separate from the exchange. That land is valued at $2.24 million. The BLM also gave up about 200 acres with little public access on Horse Mountain in Eagle County.

Leslie Wexner founded the Limited Brands, now L Brands, which includes Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works.

Colorado Wild Public Lands, which includes some Roaring Fork Valley residents, had argued in part that the BLM improperly relied on a $2,500-an-acre appraisal of a 1,240-acre parcel it was trading to the Wexners. The BLM cited the land’s lack of legal vehicle access, but the group said the appraisal ignored the parcel’s intended future use as part of its ranch.

The IBLA said the appeal mistakenly focused on the access the Wexners would gain to the parcel through their other land once they acquired it, rather than what access any potential buyer would have.

Hawk Greenway, a Colorado Wild Public Lands member, said the group is evaluating its options for appealing Monday’s ruling, either by asking the IBLA to reconsider or taking action in court. He said he didn’t know whether the exchange could be reversed even if the group wins on further appeal.

For now, he said, “I’m still trying to get my head around how they could so manipulate the appraisal process.”

He believes the deal shortchanges taxpayers, even more so because the Wexners will be able to take a tax deduction for the part of the Sutey Ranch that they donated.

“We’re paying them to take our land away from us. That just is astounding to me,” he said.

The BLM had said the values of the land swap would have been skewed in the government’s favor if that acreage had been included in it rather than donated separately.

“Having the (exchange) decision affirmed is great news for public lands in the Roaring Fork Valley. This land exchange provides a substantial public benefit by conserving lands for wildlife, providing opportunities for recreation, and consolidating land ownership,” Shonna Dooman, acting field manager for the BLM’s Colorado River Valley Field Office, said in a news release.

The exchange had support from Garfield, Pitkin and Eagle counties, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Aspen Valley Land Trust.