Lower Blue land swap in the works
SUMMIT COUNTY – A proposed land trade in the Lower Blue Valley would add several significant chunks of riverfront land to the public domain in Grand County, but could also mean less public access to the Blue River in Summit County north of Heeney.Some local anglers are opposed to the deal and are circulating a petition at fly fishing shops in the area. And while some rafters and kayakers have also expressed concern about the potential loss of one BLM parcel that is now used as a take-out spot, Summit County officials say the swap would further the county’s open space goals in the area around Green Mountain Reservoir.Several of the parcels at issue are partly or completely surrounded by the 25,000-acre Blue Valley Ranch, and the deal would enable ranch owner Paul Tudor Jones II to consolidate his land holdings along the river.”I think there’s more benefit to the public than negative,” said County Commissioner Tom Long. Summit County Open Space and Trails chief Todd Robertson was also supportive of the swap, explaining that it would enable the county to “recycle” some open space money previously spent to buy land in the Green Mountain area.
While the county is preparing a letter of support for the land exchange, not everyone agrees with that assessment.”I think we need to be adding more public access along the Blue, not taking it away,” said Mitch Vogt, a guide and store manager for Cutthroat Anglers in Silverthorne. Eliminating access simply increases pressure on the remaining spots, Vogt said, expressing concern that the aim of the Blue Valley Ranch is to eliminate public access from the river as it passes through the ranch. “In my mind, Jones (the ranch owner) is trying to take the land along the river piece by piece,” Vogt said. “He wants to have the ability to control floating on the river,” he added.”The way I look at it, those BLM tracts are the last places for public access between the bridge at Spring Creek Road and Trough Road,” said Blue Valley Acres resident Todd Nelson. “Boaters and kayakers will have to float the entire river to the confluence, with no place to stop and rest or have a picnic.”
As envisioned, the exchange involves 11 parcels of federal land totaling 1,773 acres that would go into private ownership. In return, 10 private parcels totaling 2,016 acres would go into public ownership. Four of the non-federal parcels (955 acres) are in Summit County.The complex trade is being facilitated by Western Land Group, the same company working on an unrelated swap involving Forest Service land at Keystone and the Chihuahua town site in the Upper Snake River Basin. The key player in the swap is the Blue Valley Ranch, owned by Paul Tudor Jones, a Connecticut-based millionaire who earned his fortune on Wall Street. Jones has developed a reputation for conservation-oriented land stewardship, recently winning an award from the Middle Park Land Trust. Jones restored agricultural operations on parts of the Blue Valley Ranch, re-acquiring water rights that were sold by previous owners.The trade has been in the works for four years, and the Kremmling Bureau of Land Management field office recently submitted a feasibility study to BLM experts in Washington, D.C. With a go-ahead from officials there, the trade could soon enter a public comment phase, said John Ruhs, the Kremmling-based BLM field director for the area.
Once he gets the word from agency leaders, Ruhs said he would schedule public meetings and likely prepare a draft environmental study to analyze and disclose environmental, social and economic impacts of the trade. Under a preliminary timetable outlined in a county memo, the swap could be done by the end of this year.Ruhs said that, all in all, the trade would create more access than is lost, but acknowledged that recreational issues will be a key part of the agency’s analysis. Some of the parcels that are now in public ownership are only accessible from the river, and the trade would enable more land-based access in the area from the Trough Road to the confluence of the Blue and Colorado rivers, he said.Ruhs said, adding that, as part of the analysis process, the BLM must carefully weigh the relative values of the parcels, for example balancing the benefits of hunting access with the benefits of access for kayakers and anglers. All those interests would have a chance to weigh in with their concerns during the public process phase of the swap, he said.Ranch manager Perry Handyside said activities on the ranch include cattle grazing, including more than 100 head of bison, as well as about 1,000 acres of cultivated hay meadows, as well as private hunting and fishing. Additionally, the landowner has been actively practicing stewardship on the ranch, including improvements to aquatic habitat and sage grouse habitat.
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