The U.S. Forest Service has denied a request by public lands advocates to extend a comment period for the controversial Valle Seco land exchange.
Colorado Wild Public Lands and San Juan Citizen’s Alliance had requested additional time in order to analyze the recent release of land appraisals related to the project.
The documents were released after the official comment period had expired.
In a Jan. 7 letter denying the additional comment period, Deputy Regional Forester Jacqueline Buchanan stated that regulations do not allow for extension of objection filing periods.
“The objection response date has already been extended the allowable 30 days,” Buchanan wrote. “An additional extension is not allowed under 36 CFR 218.26. Therefore, your request cannot be granted.”
A written response to objectors’ concerns associated with the release and opportunity to review the appraisals will be issued by the national forest by Jan. 21, the letter states. A final decision on the land exchange will be made by San Juan Forest Supervisor Kara Chadwick.
The late release of the appraisals and denial of additional public comment to review them shows a lack transparency by the government agency, said Jimbo Buickerood, San Juan Citizen’s lands and forest protection program manager.
“They want to just move it along, and were not forthcoming,” he said. “We were shortchanged on information. They never held public meetings on the project or had open-invite tours. Out of fairness, let the public get the information with enough time.”
Both groups said they plan to submit additional comments regardless.
The Journal reached out to Chadwick for comment on the issue, but has not heard from her.
CWPL sued the U.S. Forest Service in October 2021 for the appraisal records, and on Dec. 22, 2021, while the lawsuit was pending, the Forest Service released the appraisal documents, more than a year after the Freedom of Information Act request.
The land swap in Archuleta County is between billionaire landowner Kelcy Warren and the San Juan National Forest. The project has received preliminary approval and is in the objection period. A final decision is expected soon.
According to the land swap, the Forest Service would convey nine parcels of federal land totaling 380 acres to private owner Warren and three others.
In exchange, the Forest Service would obtain Warren’s nearby 800-acre Valle Seco private inholding, which would become public land and is critical habitat for deer and elk. Warren proposed the land exchange.
Attempts to reach Warren at his company Energy Transfer were not successful Tuesday.
Objectors argue that transferring public lands to private property owners is not in the public interest. The land that would be lost is used for public recreation and includes designated roadless areas. Opponents are concerned the newly acquired private land could spur development that harms the environment adjacent to public lands.
Of the 380 acres slated to be taken out of federal ownership, 175 acres are designated as Colorado Roadless Areas that complement the nearby South San Juan Wilderness Area.
The Forest Service asserts it is a fair trade because the Valle Seco parcel includes critical big game wildlife habitat and is surrounded by national forest. By becoming public land, the potential for development in the inholding is eliminated.
According to the released appraisals, the nine federal parcels totaling 380 acres are worth $3.086 million, and the 880-acre private Valle Seco parcel is worth $3.080 million. The appraisals were conducted by William B. Love Appraisals Inc. of Cortez.
To augment the loss in roadless areas from the land swap, the U.S. National Forest Service is considering expanding the Winter Hills/Serviceberry Mountain Colorado Roadless Area by 529 to 7,954 acres, according to the environmental assessment. The decision is pending.
For more information on the Valle Seco Land Exchange visit the webpage at www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=57154