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Public lands group sues Forest Service for appraisals in controversial land swap

The San Juan National Forest plans a land swap with a private landowner to obtain the 800-acre Valle Seco parcel, above, that is in critical big game habitat. (Courtesy San Juan National Forest)
Colorado Wild Public Lands seeking property values in federal land exchange with private landowner near Pagosa Springs

A proposed land swap near Pagosa Springs between the San Juan National Forest and a billionaire landowner is being challenged by public land advocates and has triggered a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

Boot Jack Ranch owner Kelcy Warren requested the Valle Seco land exchange, which would convey nine parcels of U.S. Forest Service land totaling 380 acres to private ownership under Warren and three other proponents, according to plan documents.

In exchange, the Forest Service would obtain the nearby 880-acre Valle Seco private inholding owned by Warren, which would become public federal land. The parcel includes critical big game wildlife habitat and is surrounded by national forest.

The San Juan National Forest Pagosa Ranger District granted preliminary approval to the plan, and says it is a fair swap that will benefit wildlife and is in the public interest.

Acquiring the wildlife habitat of Valle Seco is the biggest benefit for the land exchange, said San Juan National Forest Supervisor Kara Chadwick on Thursday.

“It is a crucial migratory corridor, and we don’t want to see it developed. We have a policy that (land exchanges) have a certain amount of equal value,” she said. “The parcels being traded out are equal value to parcels we would be acquiring.”

Chadwick said that as part of the plan analysis and alternatives, the Forest Service offered buy the 880 acres from Warren rather than conduct a land exchange. However, Warren did not want to sell.

The Valle Seco land exchange proposes to swap 380 acres of San Juan National Forest land (Parcels 1-9) for the 800-acre Valle Seco private inholding (Parcel A). The private parcel contains critical deer and elk habitat. (Courtesy San Juan National Forest)

But public land advocate Colorado Wild Public Lands questioned whether the land exchange was a fair value for the taxpayer because the Forest Service has refused to release land value appraisals prior to their final decision, expected on Jan. 21.

“According to federal land exchange laws and the National Environmental Policy Act, the Forest Service must be able to demonstrate equal value in the lands being exchanged,” said Anne Rickenbaugh, a board member for Colorado Wild Public Lands. “Without the U.S. Forest Service disclosing the appraisals, the public cannot meaningfully comment on the assessment of equal value.”

CWPL filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the Forest Service for the appraisal amounts, but the requests were denied.

The group then filed a federal lawsuit Oct. 21 in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., to compel the Forest Service to release the appraisals as part of the FOIA request filed in the Valle Seco land exchange proposal. The case is pending.

Chadwick said she could not comment on why the appraisals were not released by the Forest Service under the FOIA request because the matter is under litigation.

The lawsuit claims the Forest Service violated open records law by not releasing the appraisals, and therefore prevented CWPL from making a determination if the exchange has equal value in the interests of the taxpayer.

Objectors note the Forest Service provided the appraisals to the proponents advocating for the exchange but denied access to opponents in the case.

The Forest Service’s practice is to release the appraised value in land exchanges after the deals are finalized, but it has the discretion to release the records earlier, said Rickenbaugh, of CPWL.

For example, in 2009, the San Juan National Forest released appraised values in the Hermosa/Mitchell Lakes land swap that exchanged 228 acres of federal land for two private parcels totaling 170 acres.

“Part of the problem is the Forest Service is not required to release the appraisals until after they issue the record of decision. We sued the BLM over this and won,” Rickenbaugh said. “The Forest Service relied on the appraisals in their approval decision and the equal value determination, so they should be released to the public.”

According to the Archuleta County Assessor’s Office, Warren purchased the 800-acre Valle Seco property in 2014 for $4 million. If the land exchange is not approved, Warren has indicated he has plans to fence the Valle Seco property, raise elk, build a hunting lodge and apply for year-round motorized access from the Forest Service, according to the environmental assessment.

Under the land exchange, Warren’s Boot Jack Ranch would obtain three federal land parcels totaling 192 acres. David K. Skidmore and Cynthia A. Sites would receive three parcels totaling 133 acres, and David C. Lindner would receive three parcels totaling 58 acres.

After an environmental assessment and public comment period, the Forest Service in September issued a draft decision notice approving the land swap.

A final decision is pending an ongoing objection period initiated by opponents Colorado Wild Public Lands and San Juan Citizens Alliance.

The groups argue that transferring public lands, including roadless areas, to private property owners is not in the public interest, eliminates designated roadless areas, reduces recreational access and could spur development that harms the environment.

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.

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.

For more information on the Valle Seco Land Exchange visit the webpage at www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=57154