As public officials applaud, some anglers are protesting the Blue Valley Land Exchange over concerns about losing access to a prized fishing spot
Colorado officials — along with commissioners in Summit and Grant counties — laud the plan's addition to public lands while others fight for their fishing grounds
Editor’s note: A caption has been updated to correct details of an agreement between Summit County government and Blue Valley Ranch regarding a boat launch site.
Every couple of weeks, Austin Ezman will wake up early to drive from his home in Breckenridge about 45 minutes north to a pull off in Grand County that overlooks a bend in the Blue River.
From the top of a steep ledge, Ezman often looks down on the river to observe the conditions and see who else is there. Then he’ll slip into his waders, climb down the footpath that skirts the cliffside and trudge through the river with his rod to find the best spot to fish.
“It’s a super, super unique piece of water,” Ezman said. “The structure of the water is just crazy different compared to anything else in the immediate area. You’ll have parts of the water that are a few inches deep, and then you’ll step over and it’ll be 10 feet deep.”
He said he visited the spot at least 30 times last year, in all seasons.
“There’s nowhere else really like that on the Blue River.”
But, hike-in access to this section of the river could soon become off limits to local anglers. The public parcel is one of several scattered across Summit and Grand counties that are part of a land exchange agreement with Blue Valley Ranch.
On Jan. 16, the Bureau of Land Management — which is part of the U.S. Interior Department — issued a record of decision approving the exchange. Blue Valley Ranch first proposed some form of the land swap in 2001 to address the “checkerboard nature” of ownership in the area.
As part of the deal, the federal government will convey nine parcels totaling 1,489 acres to Blue Valley Ranch, while the ranch will transfer nine parcels of private land totaling 1,830 acres to public ownership.
Blue Valley Ranch has also agreed to provide Summit County with $600,000 for new open space acquisitions, cover the costs of river restoration work for a ¾ mile section of the Blue River near its confluence with the Colorado River and pay for the creation of the Confluence Recreation Area with more than 2 miles of new walking trails and wheel-chair accessible fishing platforms.
For those who float the river, a permanent, seasonal takeout and rest stop near the Spring Creek River Bridge will be constructed, with another rest stop 3 miles downstream from the bridge as well. The exchange will also result in more than a mile and a half of hike-in access to the Blue River that is currently inaccessible except by floating.
The exchange has seen wide support from government officials including both of Colorado’s senators, both the Summit County and Grand County commissioners, and those at the Bureau of Land Management. Meanwhile, some local residents and outdoors groups, like the Colorado River Confluence chapter of Trouts Unlimited, have also come out in support of the exchange.
Still, others have expressed their opposition to the exchange, including the advocacy group Colorado Wild Public Lands, and those — like Ezman — who regularly recreate in the areas that are currently public.
“It’s been a big concern of mine,” Ezman said of the exchange. “The fishing there is extremely good, but it’s also extremely technical. Unfortunately, it’s really one of the only wadeable sections of the lower Blue River.”
Though the Bureau of Land Management has issued the record of decision approving the land exchange, it has not been finalized just yet. When the bureau issued that document, a 45-day protest period began, allowing those opposed to the exchange to submit comments through March 2.
Colorado Wild Public Lands has been a leading voice in the opposition to the land exchange for a number of years and is among those submitting protests. The nonprofit, which touts its experience with public lands management, follows and provides feedback on land exchanges happening across the state.
Graham Ward, a staff member with the advocacy group, said the Colorado Wild Public Lands has several concerns about the exchange — one of which is that it was proposed by a wealthy landowner, not by the Bureau of Land Management itself.
“The exchange is only happening to appease the private landowner here,” Ward said. “It seems like something that’s trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist.”
Congress created laws to allow public-private land exchanges with the intention of helping the Bureau of Land Management and federal government better manage its lands, but the land exchange process is most often used by private landowners to meet their own goals, he said.
While landowners will often propose a deal that “seems pretty sweet” to the Bureau of Land Management or U.S. Forest Service, Ward said land exchanges can “trade away lands that are already used and well-loved for something that sounds good but isn’t guaranteed.”
When it comes to the Blue Valley Ranch land exchange in particular, Ward said, Colorado Wild Public Lands has concerns that the exchange will result in privatization of an almost 15-mile stretch of land along the river.
“We think it is kind of a shame to see this beautiful stretch of water become entirely privatized,” he said. “That’s the heart of it.”
Colorado Public Lands has also voiced frustration with the access to documents related to the exchange. Ward said the group filed a public records request for a draft of the binding land exchange in July 2021, only to receive 91 fully redacted pages.
“There is a practice of withholding information on these exchanges as long as possible from the public,” Ward said. “We didn’t receive that full version of it until … four days before the decision.”
‘Additional public access’
Support for the land exchange, though, is widespread. In tweets last month, Sen. Michael Bennet said “the approval of the Blue Valley Land Exchange is great news for CO anglers, rafters, and all advocates of the Blue River,” and Sen. John Hickenlooper echoed that statement.
The Grand County Board of Commissioners, meanwhile, applauded the approval in a January news release, calling attention to the amenities that Blue Valley Ranch has promised, particularly the new recreation area to be constructed at the Blue River’s confluence with the Colorado River. The release states that Blue Valley Ranch is expected to invest over $2 million — at no cost to the taxpayer — as part of the exchange.
The Summit County Board of Commissioners also voiced support for the exchange in a news release issued last month. And, in an interview, Commissioner Elisabeth Lawrence said, “at the end of the day, we’re talking about additional public access to the outdoors.”
Lawrence said that the project aligns with all of the goals of the Summit County Commission related to increasing outdoor accessibility for the public. Pointing to a pull out near the Spring Creek River Bridge and the additional rest area 3 miles downstream that will be added as part of the exchange, she said she doesn’t believe it is true that the exchange will privatize land along a 15 mile stretch of the river.
Lawrence also shot back against claims that the land exchange process hasn’t been forthcoming with the public, noting the exchange has been underway for well over a decade.
“I don’t think there has been a lack of transparency,” she said. “This has been going on for a long time.”
As for the public lands that will become private as part of the exchange, Lawrence said that those parcels are in good hands. She said that Blue River Valley is a good land steward who will protect and restore habitat in the area.
“I think we can’t ignore what Blue River Valley does in terms of preservation and restoration,” Lawrence said. “They work incredibly hard so that the land and waters there are pristine, perfect habitat, meaning that area is rife for wildlife.”
As for the loss of the parcel of public hike-in access to fishing, Lawrence said the land exchange will result in additional hike-in fishing access with Blue Valley Ranch promising restoration work that could make those areas “Gold Medal” trout fishing.
The Board of the Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited, a branch of a national nonprofit focused on protecting cold water fisheries, also favors the exchange. Kirk Klancke, the president of that board, said the group’s main interest is in the almost mile of stream channeling improvements that Blue Valley River has promised just above the Blue River’s confluence with the Colorado River.
“This is a particularly unhealthy stream channel which will be transformed to be a healthy aquatic habitat that will have a positive impact upstream on the Blue River and Downstream on the Colorado River,” Klancke said in an email. “The land exchange will also create far more public access to Gold Medal water than it will take away.”
Klancke said the access loss is about 1/8 of a mile, while the exchange creates access to a couple miles of Blue River in the canyon below Green Mountain Reservoir and a mile of access in the stream just above the confluence.
“We are working hard to restore rivers in Grand County, but this is very costly work,” he wrote. “We look at this land exchange as a gift because it will move us one mile closer to restoring the headwaters of the Colorado River.”
Rob Firth, the former general manager of Blue Valley Ranch, said in an email that the primary mission of the ranch is conservation and consolidating ranch lands separated by isolated federal parcels “will allow landscape scale conservation and will enhance the Ranch’s ability to effectively manage wildlife, water, and land.”
Firth also said, “any assertion that the Blue Valley Land Exchange will privatize a 15-mile stretch of the Blue River is absolutely false.”
He said not only will the public have the same access to the float the river they have always enjoyed but they will also have access to an additional mile and a half of “contiguous walk-in Gold Medal fishing” in the Green Mountain Canyon.
Elijah Waters, the Northwest District Manager for the Bureau of Land Management Colorado, said that the land exchange will preserve — and enhance — existing public uses in the area, including whitewater sports, float fishing and walk-in fishing.
“We were able to negotiate with the ranch to secure a couple of additional easements that sealed the deal,” Waters said. “Namely a fishing and access easement near the Spring Creek Bridge, and the two rest stop easements that will allow the floating public a chance to get out and stretch their legs and take a break.”
Waters said these rest stops will have picnic tables and portable toilets. Access to a large block of public land on San Toy Mountain that had previously been inaccessible will also be provided by the exchange, he said.
As for when the land exchange will actually be finalized — with public lands becoming private and vice versa — Waters said that depends on whether members of the public file protests. If protests are received, the decision is stayed until the protest is resolved, which could take fewer than 30 days or much longer, he said.
The protests, which can be submitted by emailing email@example.com, will become public after March 2, and once resolved, the work to exchange titles could take about 90 to 120 days, according to Waters.
In addition to Colorado Public Lands, at least one member of the public said he plans to submit a protest. Afraid of losing access to some of his favorite fishing holes, Ezman said he hopes the hike-in access he currently uses remains public.
“It’s one of those spots that is super, super special, and there’s nothing else quite like it,” he said. “It’s definitely unfortunate that we’re losing it.”
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