‘A special place’: Blue Valley land exchange temporarily postponed after more than a dozen protests were submitted to the Bureau of Land Management

While many public officials have come out in support of the deal, some local anglers are concerned about the loss of their favorite fishing spot and a nonprofit contends the deal is not in the public interest.

Parcel I, near this section of the Blue River in Grand County not far from Colorado Highway 9, could become private under a land exchange agreement the Bureau of Land Management approved in January. Several anglers who submitted protests specifically referred to this parcel as a treasured fishing grounds.
Austin Ezman/Courtesy photo

A deal that would exchange parcels of private and public land in Summit and Grand counties has been temporarily postponed while more than a dozen protests submitted to the Bureau of Land Management are resolved.

The exchange would give nine parcels of public land totaling 1,489 acres to Blue Valley Ranch, while the ranch would transfer nine private parcels totaling 1,830 acres to the public. As part of the deal, the ranch says it will invest $2 million in river restoration work and various recreational improvements.

The Bureau of Land Management approved the deal in January, which set up a 45-day protest period that ended earlier this month.

Elijah Waters, the Northwest District manager for the Bureau of Land Management Colorado State Office, said in an email last week that a final decision will be issued pending the resolution of the protests. Waters did not provide an estimate on how long it would take to resolve the protests.

Once that final decision is issued, an appeal may be filed with the Interior Board of Land Appeals, Waters said. He added that it is the bureau’s policy not to comment on pending protests.

Blue Valley Ranch, which is owned by billionaire Paul Tudor Jones II, first proposed some form of the land swap in 2001 to address the “checkerboard nature” of ownership in the area. The ranch has said the public gains more from the exchange than it loses.

But, while many public officials — including Colorado’s senators and Summit and Grand county commissioners — have come out in support of the deal, the exchange has proved controversial.

In addition to a nonprofit that follows land exchanges in Colorado, those who submitted protests included local anglers concerned about the loss of their favorite fishing grounds, homeowners concerned that the exchange could deflate property values and individuals worried about impacts on wildlife. The protests were all posted to the Bureau of Land Management website with names and contact information redacted.

A map shows the existing public and private parcels as well as how the land ownership would change under if the Blue Valley Ranch land exchange approved in January goes through.
Bureau of Land Management/Courtesy photo

Colorado Wild Public Lands

Colorado Wild Public Lands, a nonprofit that touts its experience with public lands management, submitted the most substantive protest — a 24-page document, not including dozens of pages of attachments — which argues the exchange does not comply with the law. The nonprofit has long been an opponent of the exchange.

“We don’t think it’s in the public interest. We think the public is losing valuable recreational and natural resources,” Anne Rickenbaugh, a Colorado Wild Public Lands board member, said in an interview. “And we don’t think what is coming back is comparable.”

In the protest, Rickenbaugh raised concern that none of the public lands being conveyed to Blue Valley Ranch would be subject to the protections of a conservation easement “because the proponent was unwilling to accept those easements.”

While the current owner displays conservation tendencies, the ranch’s refusal to accept conservation easements calls into question its intentions for the lands and whether they could be sold and developed in the future, according to the Colorado Wild Public Land’s protest.

“Development is not an ‘unforeseen use,'” Rickenbaugh wrote in the protest. “It is an eventual one, even if it is many years in the future. Conservation easements are designed precisely for mitigating such concerns.”

Noting that “riparian areas and wetlands are the most productive acres in any western landscape,” Colorado Wild Public Lands also raises concerns about a net loss of more than a mile of stream frontage, 62 acres of wetlands, about 5 acres of riparian habitat and about 3 acres of aquatic habitat. In total, about 78 acres of previously protected wetlands would no longer be subject to the same level of protections, the group claims.

“It is reasonable to assume at least incremental reductions in wetlands on private property over time,” Rickenbaugh wrote.

The nonprofit’s protest points to two examples from the 1990s when Jones or those he employed faced fines — and even jail time and probation — for violations of wetlands protections and the Clean Water Act.

Colorado Wild Public Lands also raises concerns that appraisals of public lands being traded were not up to date, that several of the now-public parcels fall under paleontological and cultural resource classifications, that some of the parcels the public will receive “have no public or private values,” and the wide discretion Blue Valley Ranch has over the recreational amenities to be provided under the agreement.

In particular, the nonprofit believes the Green Mountain Recreation Area promised in the record of decision may never come to fruition in part due to the fact that it will require review by the National Forest Service to develop a hiking trail there.

“Immensely valuable public lands are to be traded away for restrictive access easements and non-guaranteed infrastructure improvements,” Rickenbaugh wrote.

After hiking through a parcel of public land that could soon become private, a fisherman prepares to wade into the frigid waters of the Blue River on Sunday, Feb., 2023.
Austin Ezman/Courtesy photo

Citizen protests

Though Blue Valley Ranch has said the public will continue to have access to float the river after the exchange, in protests, several citizens raised concerns about losing float access if the exchange goes through.

“I view this swap as another attempt to push out people like me the common angler,” one protester wrote, questioning whether parts of the river will be deep enough for people to float without touching private land. “This could be a back door way to cut off the floaters.”

Another wrote, “I also fear that Mr Jones will eventually find a way to eliminate float access through this section of river.”

Colorado Wild Public Lands echoed these fears, claiming that over the years Blue Valley Ranch has continued to build river improvements some of which include “rock ‘improvements’ that make traveling on the river without trespassing harder and harder.” The nonprofit said in its protest that the ranch should guarantee float access at river flows as low as 350 cubic feet per second.

Citizens, as well as Colorado Wild Public Lands, also raised concerns about a loss of fishing access.

“I am protesting this deal because it is not in the public’s best interest,” wrote one protester who identified himself as the owner of a Silverthorne fly fishing shop. “It does not enhance public recreation and the resource value of the current federal lands IS greater than non-federal land.”

Like many local anglers who wrote in protest, the fly fishing shop owner took issue with what he described as a net loss of public lands on the Blue River. In particular the shop owner raised concern about the assessed value of Parcel I, which he said is too low.

In protests, Parcel I is called out several times by local anglers as a favorite fishing spot, since it has wade-in access that will be lost if it becomes private as part of the exchange.

One protester describes that parcel as “a special place,” while another — in apparent reference to Parcel I — described the area as “some of the most pristine on the whole river,” and third described the riverbend as “truly the most unique spot I’ve ever fished in Colorado” and “my families’ favorite spot for decades.”

Other citizens raised concerns about potential impacts to their home values due to a loss of public land nearby. For example, a resident claimed the loss of public land behind their family’s house “takes significant value away from our home and potentially for buyers when we sell our property.”

Rob Firth, a spokesperson for Blue Valley Ranch said in an email that Parcel I is a 0.3 mile stretch of river and is the only access to hike-in fishing that will become unavailable as part of the land exchange.

“While a stretch near an irrigation diversion structure provides good fishing, its a short stretch,” Firth said. “A steep slope makes access difficult. Those that fish there value it. But the exchange is based on an overall balancing of the public interest, and a significant gain offsets that loss to some.”

In exchange for Parcel I, the public receives 1.65 miles of walk-in access to “Gold Medal quality fishing” where the Blue River flows through Green Mountain Canyon that is currently inaccessible since it is surrounded by private land, according to Firth. 

The public will also gain new access to 2 miles of walk-in fishing near the confluence of the Blue and Colorado Rivers, he said, and Blue Valley Ranch will pay for stream restoration on a ¾ mile of that stretch.

“Add it all up, and the land exchange delivers a ten-to-one benefit for the public in walk-in access to a high-quality fishing experience,” Firth said, noting that the Colorado River Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited has voiced support for the exchange.

Rickenbaugh noted, though, that some of the hike-in fishing access — including an easement on Blue Valley Ranch land at Spring Creek Bridge — would seasonally restrict fishing to between Memorial Day through Labor Day. Current public hike-in access areas — such as on Parcel I — do not have time of year restrictions, she noted.

Still other citizens raised concerns about the value of the lands being exchanged and the potential impacts of the exchange on wildlife.

One protester expressed concern that the exchange may not take into consideration mule deer habitat and bighorn sheep winter range in areas near Green Mountain and suggests that seasonal closures may be necessary.

Meanwhile, another protester wrote, “There are few, if any, real wins for wildlife.”

“The touted benefits to the public being advertised are over $2 million in improvements to existing infrastructure along Blue River, to be financed by Blue Valley Ranch,” the protester wrote. “As such, the Blue Valley Land swap is a deal best viewed through the lens of a multi-million dollar development deal; not conservation.”

Several other residents also raised concerns that the deal was being driven by a billionaire.

“Money and greed should not dictate this,” one protester wrote. “Don’t allow them to purchase this river from the American tax payer,” wrote another. Yet another protester said, “Do not trade the” livelihood “and shared joy of our hard working locals to appease a billionaire in the 1% of our population. Nobody should own a river as mighty and wonderful as the Blue River.”

Similarly, Colorado Wild Public Lands also claims that the deal is in violation of federal regulations because it is being driven by Blue Valley Ranch, rather than by the Bureau of Land Management.

But Firth shot back against these claims, saying, “The accusation that a wealthy individual is taking advantage of the public by getting more than he is giving is cheap and uninformed.”

The facts of the land exchange prove that is untrue, Firth said, because it is clear the public gains much more than it loses through the exchange. He also added that “any fair-minded observer knows that Blue Valley Ranch has contributed significantly to the local community.”

For example, Firth said, a cash donation from Blue Valley Ranch got a safety project along Colorado Highway 9 underway that placed five underground wildlife crossing tunnels and two overpasses along the road. He said the project was completed with funds donated by the project and matched by the ranch along with state funding.

“The Blue Valley Land Exchange was created through years of negotiation with the (Bureau of Land Management) and talks with other stakeholders,” Firth said. “The result is a land exchange that is overwhelmingly in the public interest. The proof is in the facts.”

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