Blue Valley Land Exchange sparks some backlash about Blue River access, but feds say it benefits the public

This map outlines the proposed land exchange between Blue Valley Ranch and the Bureau of Land Management, with the pre-exchange land ownership depicted on the left and the post-exchange depicted on the right.
Map from Bureau of Land Management

A proposed Bureau of Land Management land swap in Grand and Summit counties touted as providing expanded access to the Blue River has garnered backlash from a group that follows land exchanges, but federal and regional officials maintain the exchange will benefit the public.

The land exchange authorizes the Bureau of Land Management to exchange nine parcels of federal land in Grand County for nine parcels of land privately owned by Blue Valley Ranch in Grand and Summit counties. Bureau spokesperson Chris Maestas said this allows the bureau to exchange isolated parcels with limited or no public access for parcels that would consolidate public lands and increase public access. He said there would be a net gain of 341 acres of public land.

“We are fortunate to manage this special area of public lands with a local community that is very engaged in helping us make the right decisions,” Kremmling Field Office Manager Bill Mills wrote in an email.

Rob Firth, former general manager with Blue Valley Ranch, said the exchange was initiated years ago to address the “checkerboard nature” of the land ownership in and around Blue Valley Ranch. He said the exchange will also even up boundaries between ranch land and public land, making land management easier on private and public entities.

“There are parcels of (bureau) land that are completely surrounded by private land,” Firth wrote in an email. “The public can’t use these land parcels and the (bureau) can’t properly manage them because they lack access. Some parcels are only reachable by floating the river to them.”

Colorado Wild Public Lands, a nonprofit that touts its public lands management experience, has written to the bureau several times expressing multiple concerns, according to Suzanne Jackson, who leads the organization. Jackson said the concerns primarily focus on three parcels that provide access to the Blue River, which would become private land under the agreement.

The three parcels — G, H and I — are all along the Blue River. G and H are across the river from each other close to the Grand-Summit border, and I is further north off Trough Road.

“These are very important parcels of land that give the public who may be rafting the river attempts to get off and get onto land,” Jackson said. “Parcel I is a really great parcel because it has very easy foot access to the river. It makes the river really accessible to the public.”

Jackson also said there are archeological and cultural resources on these parcels that will become private. She said they were evaluated to be included in the National Register of Historic Places and that they “just barely didn’t make it.”

In exchange for these three parcels, as well as additional land throughout Grand and Summit counties, the Bureau of Land Management would receive 1.65 miles of hike-in access to river frontage that is currently inaccessible. It also expands public access along a mile of the Blue River near the confluence with the Colorado River.

“Over the past two years, the (Bureau of Land Management’s) Kremmling Field Office has worked very hard to address public access concerns for the public into the future,” Maestas wrote in an email. “(The bureau) appreciates the public’s engagement with the current proposed action, which does address many public access concerns on the lower Blue River.”

Firth said the rights of those boating down the river will not be affected by the exchange. He said the distance between places to pull over on the river will remain about the same with the addition of permanent rest stops.

“People who float the river asked for another place to stop, and the land exchange will deliver that with a new rest stop that will have a seasonal toilet,” Firth said.

The Grand County Board of Commissioners wrote a letter countering arguments Colorado Wild Public Lands made against the exchange. The letter says the organization’s notion that the exchange will privatize “many miles of Blue River front” is not true. It says the public will gain 1.65 miles of new access, while the public will lose access to an embankment that accesses 0.3 mile of river near Trough Road — Parcel I.

“Those ‘losses’ are more than offset by the benefits of the exchange,” the letter reads.

A new recreation area is also proposed at the confluence of the Blue River and the Colorado River, and Firth said the ranch is planning to pay the estimated costs of $2 million to $3 million for the project. The Confluence Recreation Area would include stream improvements making the water more productive for trout and more accessible to the public via trails, picnic areas and a wheelchair accessible fishing platform. The ranch will also establish a fund to provide money to the bureau for ongoing operations and maintenance of the area, according to Firth.

“The land exchange is the result of a long process of negotiation between the (Bureau of Land Management) and Blue Valley Ranch to ensure it is overwhelmingly in the public interest,” Firth said.

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